Eddie Jones looks set to announce Dylan Hartley as the new England captain, ushering in a new era for the national side after their World Cup woes.
‘Out with the old, in with the new’, sound the predictable cries as soon as an English team fails to perform on the biggest stage. Head Coach Stuart Lancaster has rightly fallen victim to such thinking along with his three assistants, while his captain Chris Robshaw looks set to suffer the same fate.
Ironically Robshaw’s successor has a foot in both camps. A 66-cap veteran, Hartley will be amongst the most experienced members of Jones’s first team and yet the Northampton captain could bring fresh impetus as a player free from the scars of the disastrous home World Cup.
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Hartley is what England need
Throughout the group stages, England sorely missed both Hartley’s technical expertise and arguably, more importantly, his physical edge. Tom Youngs may be a more mobile player than his Midlands rival, but Hartley’s brutish physicality was sorely missed in an England pack short of any air of intimidation.
Jones will no doubt be aware of his new captain’s history of straying beyond the laws of the game. In total, Hartley has accrued over a years’ worth of suspensions in his career so far, including being famously sent off in the 2013 Premiership final for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes.
However, when fully fit, the New Zealand-born forward remains the best player available in his position with his technical excellence and leadership experience at club level.
Youngs not up to it
Richard Cockerill can vouch for Youngs as hard as he likes, however, there is no denying that the need to include line-out expert Geoff Parling in order to offset Youngs’s weak throwing left England light up front.
Jones will have also been concerned by the way England’s scrum, traditionally a source of strength, was dismantled by Australia, with Youngs and company conceding five penalties in the match.
As a leader, Robshaw’s work-rate, honesty and 'nice-bloke' demeanour typified the Lancaster era, which prioritised establishing a strong culture in order for results to follow.
With this approach to the game seemingly not working at the highest level, Jones and Hartley will seek a fresh approach to proceedings.
With his global experience and previous successes, England’s new Tasmanian coach will not be afraid to challenge preconceptions both from his players and the RFU.
Though the latter seem intent on hamstringing Jones with their policy that he can only make eleven changes to his first team squad, the captaincy is an area the coach has absolute control over and he looks set to exert it.
The best available captain right now
Test match rugby is not a popularity contest and confrontational characters are needed to succeed. Hartley may not be a long-term appointment, however, on a short-term basis, he would be a step in the right direction.
Joe Launchbury is yet to acquire the presence to accompany his world-class potential whilst Maro Itoje must be allowed to establish himself as a player before he is burdened with the captaincy.
Mike Brown shares similar characteristics to Hartley in their aggressive outlook, but it seems that Jones shares Brian O’Driscoll’s sentiment in his autobiography that “a captain needs to be at the coalface”, in the pack.
Appointing Jones is pointless if he isn’t permitted to question what went before him and in that sense this appointment makes a lot of sense. Hartley is no role model and nor should he need to be, however, he is England’s best hooker, a leader and crucially different to that which failed before him.
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