When England head coach Eddie Jones took over from Stuart Lancaster following the 2015 Rugby World Cup and named Dylan Hartley as captain, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Given the Northampton Saints hooker’s disciplinary record, which amounted to over a year’s worth of suspensions, he was certainly a surprise choice for the prestigious role.
Fast forward to March of 2017 and England had just secured their second consecutive Six Nations crown and were seeking to go 19 games unbeaten, all under the on-field leadership of Hartley. Following the lows of the World Cup, it was a turnaround that every fan hoped for but nobody expected.
Jones had clearly seen something in Hartley and his decision to appoint him as captain was proven to be inspired. The hooker has been the model player in the white of England as he has led them to a 20 – 1 record since their World Cup exit.
Despite his successes and professionalism for England, Hartley has seen his place as starting hooker come under threat this past season from Saracens’ Jamie George.
The 26-year-old replaced Hartley in each of their Six Nations games of 2017 and was ultimately selected above the Saints captain for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand this summer.
His performances in the famous red jersey saw him start all three Tests against the All Blacks and barely put a foot wrong all summer.
On the back of such a successful tour, George has laid done a very serious marker to leapfrog Hartley for the England No.2 shirt, despite the disparity of international experience between the pair.
If this is how Eddie Jones sees things also, could it be that in addition to Hartley’s starting spot be under threat, but so too his captaincy?
Should Jones decided to replace his with a new face, just who among the squad has the ability to lead? Looking at the squad it very quickly becomes clear that the pool of candidates is alarmingly small.
Owen Farrell is the obvious choice and the presumed future captain of the Red Rose. Already a vice-captain and leader among his peers, it is expected he will assume the reigns before long.
Second-row sensation Maro Itoje has also been marked as a captain of the future. His commitment and drive make him a born leader in the same mould as Ireland’s Paul O’Connell. At only 22-year-old and a relative newcomer on the international stage, Itoje will likely wait in line for his chance in the years ahead.
George Ford and Chris Robshaw assumed dual-captaincy roles for the summer tour of Argentina but it is unlikely either would be considered to replace Hartley. With Robshaw having been replaced by Hartley in 2015 and with Ford unlikely to trump Farrell’s credentials, vice-captaincy is likely the best either could hope for.
It must be said, however, that Robshaw has proven himself to be a strong leader and given that his return to fitness sees him likely to nail down the No.6 jersey in the back-row, he could well be back in contention for a second spell as captain.
Full-back Mike Brown, also an England vice-captain, could also be regarded as a potential candidate. However, at almost 32 and now beginning to come under threat from the versatile Elliot Daly for the No.15 jersey, vice-captaincy could be as far he goes.
Another second-row forward who could well be considered as captain is Joe Launchbury. Having missed out on Lions selection this summer, the Wasps captain conducted himself with utter class following the disappointment of missing out.
Rather than dwell, the 26-year-old helped England to a 2 – 0 series win over Argentina. An utterly committed professional, Launchbury could be an option for the captaincy, though since he has yet to assume the vice-captaincy role, he could well be left out of final consideration.
Reviewing the England squad, with many recent additions and the challenges faced by some of the veterans of the squad, when it comes down to it, there are really only two genuine candidates to take over from Hartley.
For a squad as strong as England’s, it is somewhat surprising there are not more contenders with their hand up. Perhaps it is the fact that so many have only burst onto the scene in the last couple of seasons and have yet to acquire the experience needed to lead an international side of England’s standing.
Looking around at England’s neighbours for comparison, Ireland could well look to up to five players to appoint as captain. Between Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip, Ireland have five Lions, past and present, to choose from, all of whom are proven leaders.
Similarly, for Wales, Warren Gatland has his pick of players, including Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Ken Owens and perhaps even Dan Biggar or Taulupe Faletau, see as potential candidates.
Looking north to Scotland, new head coach Gregor Townsend is spoiled for choice. In addition to current captain, Greig Laidlaw and stand-in captains like John Barclay, Stuart Hogg and either of the Gray brothers easily drop into the mix to lead.
Looking at these choices, it, therefore, appears in stark contrast that England should only really have two genuine options.
Having been appointed the Saints’ club captain again for the season ahead, Hartley is still very highly regarded and could well retain his captaincy for England, even despite potentially losing his starting place in Jones’ XV.
It appears inevitable that his grip on the No.2 shirt is slipping, however, and as George continues to show his credentials, the younger man will ultimately take over from Hartley at hooker.
When that time comes, be it sooner or later, England boss Jones will be faced with an almost enforced 50-50 choice between Farrell and Robshaw.
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