Eddie Jones has given his backing to Dylan Hartley to carry on as England captain for the Six Nations Championship even though the Northampton hooker will not have played for almost two months by the start of the tournament following his six-week ban for reckless tackling.
It is not just the fact that England are facing an injury crisis in the forwards with five of their frontline pack – the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, locks George Kruis and Joe Launchbury and flanker Chris Robshaw – set to miss at least the opening game against France on Feb 4 that has persuaded Jones to keep faith with a player who has racked up 60 weeks in suspensions.
The England head coach believes that Hartley made a technical error of judgment in felling Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien with a high swinging arm rather than felling him maliciously. As a two-day training camp in Brighton came to a close, Jones said that he had laid down strict fitness criteria for Hartley to meet. If he does not hit those targets when the squad reconvene on Jan 22 for a week’s pre-Six Nations camp in Portugal, he will not be picked.
“Dylan has got to come to Portugal fit and ready to go,” said Jones. “He’s doing all the right things at the moment and if he keeps on doing that, there’s no reason why he won’t be starting hooker and captain.
“He has got to be one of the fittest players. He is on a stringent fitness programme now. He ate turkey and broccoli for Christmas dinner. He has to watch his diet.”
Jones has sat down with Hartley to remind him of his responsibilities, as a player and as a leader.
“We’ve had many chats and no one is more disappointed than he is,” said Jones. “He is a proud Northampton player and he wants to captain England. That’s the first mistake he has made for us. Dylan made a judgment error.
“He went to hit the bloke hard, he wanted to stop the ball, the player’s height changed and he had a loose arm. I see that as his first mistake, so there is no reason why that changes anything.”
Hartley’s leadership qualities have been intrinsic to England’s success under Jones with 13 wins in 13 matches.
If they are to a mount a serious challenge for back-to-back Grand Slams then Hartley’s presence is important, all the more so with vice-captain Billy Vunipola ruled out for most of the championship with a knee injury and another strong character, former captain Robshaw, a serious doubt.
There are still three more weekends of competitive action, two of them in Europe, before England go into camp and even though Jones put a stoical face on the mounting injury problems, declaring that it is “an opportunity to grow our depth”, he also acknowledged that he had no option but to keep pressing forward with fingers crossed.
“You wake up every day and hope someone else doesn’t get injured,” said Jones, who is awaiting scans on Robshaw’s shoulder, as well as Manu Tuilagi’s knee, and is giving serious consideration to switching Maro Itoje to the back row, although that option will be shaped by the injury situation at lock.
“Maro at six is something we will definitely look at,” said Jones. “He has a pretty good engine on him, is reasonably athletic and is a good one-on-one tackler, which is essential at No 6.”
The upbeat news for Jones is that Wasps back-row forward James Haskell is on the brink of a return after six months on the sidelines following foot surgery.
Top of the agenda in Brighton was addressing the need for England to avoid the downward spiral of form that has afflicted Premier League football champions Leicester City.
“In 2016, the two most winning teams in the country were Leicester City and England,” said Jones. “We went through the example of what’s happened to Leicester and do we want that to happen to us and what are the things that we need to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
“We’ve come up with some strategies that we believe will help us overcome any complacency. It is about having courage as well to play your game really well.”