Many people are puzzling over upcoming England Rugby selections. The Six Nations is but weeks away and England are looking at an unprecedented hatrick of championship wins. Other narratives exist too; just how good are Scotland and Ireland; whereabouts are Wales; and where do France and Italy figure in it all?
England are a team worthy of exemplification. Eddie Jones tenure has been strong; almost without blip. And over the past twenty-four months I, like many, have been watching and listening. We’ve been confused by him not picking certain players and the faith placed in others. This week Austin Healey went on the front foot against Dylan Hartley. The BT Sport pundit was not alone in wondering whether the England Captain was fit to continue as England’s first choice hooker. Hartley’s form, like Northampton’s, has been questionable; why then continue to pick a player who is not playing well?
I think I know the answer. I say ‘think’ because, of course, very little is given away by Jones. But I suppose the answer lies in a conversation I had with Paul Tupai late last year. Woven amongst his words was the reason why Jones persists with Hartley. Like Tupai, Eddie Jones recognises that teams are built off the pitch as much as on it.
Firstly, Hartley is a good player. He may not be on top form but there has always been a different level accessed when he plays for the national side. The love Jones shows him lifts his game. Northampton Saints, Hartley’s club, have issues at the moment. After Jim Mallinder’s departure, there is a lot that needs unpacking. Hartley is a big part of the Saints and there’s a lot of him tied up in the machinations. There are many good players who aren’t able to find the beat at Franklin’s Gardens. But when lifted clear of that, in to the warm repose of the England Squad, Hartley will be a different player. You could still argue that he may not be what Jamie George is, but the difference will be negligible. And, as I’m about to explain, what Hartley brings to Eddie Jones’ England team outweighs that supposed lacking skill set.
The key thing to understand about how Eddie Jones works is this. He’s not picking players, he is picking a team. And you don’t get the best team by just picking the best players. Much like you don’t get a jigsaw by laying down thirty-six of the best looking pieces. Certain things fit in certain places; indeed, to extend the analogy, there are some really good pieces around but they just don’t fit the puzzle. Successful rugby teams are not about ability, as much as they are about mould and fit. If you think I’m wrong, have a think about players who go and play for a certain club, and just don’t seem to be their old self. Or those that move from the fringes of one club, into the heart of another. Have they suddenly become a different player? No. Their environment has altered. They are the same but the players around them have changed. Allowing them to seem like a different player. Also, rugby is so reliant on characters, that getting the chemistry right is invaluable. Exeter Chiefs and Saracens have been very successful over the past couple of years. It is not surprising to hear them refer to team chemistry as their most important asset. This is what Tupai alludes to when he speaks about what makes a good team. “Get the right people, the right personalities, you’ll have a team that works.”
Hartley fits Eddie Jones’ jigsaw like a glove. His personality, the way he affects other players, the way he leads, the way he speaks to the media, the way he gets on with Eddie, it all works. Jones knows this better than anyone. 2018 is a huge year for England as they prepare for the much discussed assault on the 2019 World Cup. Is removing Dylan Hartley because he’s not playing well for Saints a worthwhile risk? No, not for Jones.
England need to be tight this year. Everyone has to be on message. Not just for the eighty minutes on the pitch, but everywhere else. Hartley is Jones’ echo in camp. Messages Jones sends will be driven home by Hartley. He’s also his eyes and ears in conversations between players. Nudging people along. Hartley is like Jones’ chief of staff. A whip as much as a captain. The allegiance is incredibly strong, something Jones values as much as Hartley.
This thought process can be extended to other players too. Why Robson and Cipriani don’t get picked could well have something to do with fit. Maybe Don Armand’s lack of inclusion isn’t down to his work out wide, more the fact that Jones already has his back row puzzle sorted. Jones has his plan in place. There are certain types of player that don’t fit. Again, he is picking a team, not players.
So the answer is this: Jones picks Hartley not because he’s the in-form player. But because he’s a crucial piece; a vital part of a bigger picture. And when you think how things have worked out for Jones this past couple of years, it is difficult to argue against the England head coach’s vision.