Leaders who are capable of keeping cool, calm and collected in the most intense pressure cooker situations are a rare breed.
When Chris Robshaw turned down the shot for goal that might have drawn England level with Wales and potentially sent them trough to the quarter-final of the World Cup, he let pride and pressure cloud his judgement. He went all out to win the battle with no regard for the war.
The England team that won the 2003 World Cup was packed full of leaders. Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood were all men capable of leading their country. In the 13 years since that great team, England has won one Six Nations title, while in the same period France and Wales have won four titles respectively and Ireland have collected three.
While the loss of the great players that backboned that World Cup-winning squad through retirement and injury was undoubtedly a massive blow, only one title in a 13-year period for a country of England’s stature within the game is baffling. They possess players of real quality and players who should undoubtedly be achieving more.
However hope springs eternal and with Eddie Jones’ appointment following the World Cup disappointment, expectation has grown that he may be the man to maximise this group of players’ talents and lead them back to the glory days. While Jones will certainly improve England’s technical skill and style of play, one aspect that a coach cannot improve upon is the leadership qualities within the dressing room.
The appointment of a captain is certainly the most difficult decision Jones has had to make since taking over. What were his options? Stick with Robshaw? James Haskell? Mike Brown? Not exactly inspiring choices. Instead he decided to think outside the box and appoint the man not tainted by the World Cup horror show (mainly because he’s incapable of maintaining any semblance of discipline).
The defence of Dylan Hartley’s appointment as captain has been that the responsibility of captaincy will curb his wild streak and bring out the best in him. Those making this defence seem to miss the irony that Hartley was appointed Northampton captain in 2009. In the period he’s been club captain, his rap sheet reads:
- March 2012 – Banned for eight weeks for biting Ireland forward Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations match (this was playing for England).
- December 2012 – Banned for two weeks for punching Ulster hooker Rory Best in a Heineken Cup match.
- May 2013 – Sent off in the Aviva Premiership final and banned for 11 weeks after being found guilty of verbally abusing a match official.
- December 2014 – Sent off for an elbow in the Midlands match with Leicester Tigers and banned for three weeks.
- May 2015 – Found guilty of making contact with the head of Jamie George during Premiership semi-final and banned for four weeks.
In total, Hartley has been suspended for 28 weeks while he has been captain of Northampton.
England have a talented group of players and they now possess an excellent coaching staff but the required on-field leadership they need to bring them success is still absent. Jones has said that he wants Dylan Hartley to “be Tarzan when he leads England during the Six Nations”.
That’s all well and good, but Tarzan is not much good to England if he’s sitting in the stand for weeks on end following another inevitable loss of discipline.
England’s barren spell may continue for a while yet.
Paul O’Donovan, Pundit Arena