The wonderful ball-handling skills of the likes of new caps Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jamie George have won over fans and pundits alike in both the Aviva Premiership and now on the international stage, but even younger tyros like Harry Thacker and Jack Walker are beginning to make an impression.
Yet so often England have turned their backs on fluidity in attacking phases for security at the set piece. This dichotomy is best illustrated by the selection conundrum both Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones have faced over whether to go with the set-piece solidity of Dylan Hartley over the ubiquitous yardage made by Tom Youngs.
Eddie Jones has made his decision pretty quickly and been clear about his intentions in doing so, dropping World Cup starter Youngs from his entire Six Nations squad. Jones has often spoken of his desire to promote hookers that actually hook, and it appears Youngs has paid the price for arguably lacking in this area, but also his apparent inability to complement Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury at the lineout. It was of no great surprise that former team-mate Geoff Parling was wedged in to the starting line-up after England lost 4 of their own throws against France in a World Cup warm-up game.
Hartley, for his all his disciplinary faults at club level, is usually an effective operator at both scrum and lineout time, so it’s easy to see why former hooker Jones went with the Northampton man.
However, the talents of Jamie George in particular are leading many fans to question why Hartley should keep his place. Jones himself said that Hartley was ‘adequate’ as a player, but outstanding as a leader. (via Sky Sports)
His leadership skills are clear for all to see: you cannot ask for much more from a leader than a Grand Slam in your first tournament at the helm, but it’s difficult to rationalise Hartley’s name on the teamsheet when other players are playing more consistently for their clubs.
With George and Cowan-Dickie both returning to fitness, the pressure will build on Hartley and this can only be a good thing for him. Healthy competition is something England has lacked for the number 2 jersey in recent times.
Look beyond the current squad, however, and you’ll see the names of Sale’s Tommy Taylor, Leicester’s Harry Thacker and Bath’s latest signing Jack Walker – currently of Yorkshire Carnegie – doing the rounds. Taylor has signed up for Wasps next season with the hope of being involved in major European games to provide Jones of further evidence of his talents; Thacker has produced some wonderful moments of handling and running rugby to defy the number on his back and Jack Walker is a former England under-20 prospect who is likely to impress many of the devoted supporters down at the Recreation Ground next season.
Yet, despite a wealth of apparent talent lining up to challenge for the now-coveted England hooker jersey, all these players need to strike a clear balance between substance and style to make themselves a clear front-runner.
Cowan-Dickie, a converted prop, has some way to go before he can be labelled consistent at the set piece. In contrast, George, at his very best, can control a lineout and score scintillating tries. Leicester’s Thacker, although perceived to be weaker at the set piece, was successful with 94% (16/17) of his throws against French giants Racing in the recent Champions Cup semi-final.
Although fans were lining up to demand that Youngs be reinstated in the Six Nations squad earlier in the year, it may be tough for him to get into the Leicester starting line-up now that Thacker has had the chance to establish himself.
With several young players just beginning to strike the balance between old-fashioned set-piece machine and a genuine threat in attacking play, it will be more and more difficult for Dylan Hartley, England’s ‘Captain Fantastic’, to maintain his place. Eddie Jones is likely to have the most positive of hooking selection headaches come the summer.
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