(Photo: Getty Images)
By Neale Harvey
Nick Easter believes Dylan Hartley’s impact as captain outweighs the claims of other pretenders to England’s No.2 jersey and that Eddie Jones is right to stick with his winning formula despite the hooker’s struggles with under-performing Northampton.
Hartley was last week played off the park by opposite number Dave Ward as Saints were crushed by Quins at Twickenham. However, Easter says Hartley’s record of captaining
England to 22 wins out of 23 matches under Jones trumps all other considerations.
Calls for Jamie George have grown louder, with England legend Lawrence Dallaglio particularly vociferous last weekend. He said: “I don’t want to single out Dylan for criticism – but he is the Northampton captain and the England captain and that performance was simply not good enough. He was played off the park by Dave Ward.
“Captains lead by example and Dylan Hartley is not doing that at the moment.”
But Easter, below, told The Rugby Paper: “Dylan’s had a lot of highs in his career but also a lot of lows. There have been bans where he’s missed Lions tours and World Cups – but he responds to nothing better than criticism.
“I still remember 2011, when we played Wales in Cardiff and Warren Gatland tried to get under his skin by saying he’d choke. Instead, Dylan went out and nailed 100 per cent of his lineouts and played a blinder, which just shows the character of the guy.
“Eddie likes that about him and so do I, and while there are some good young hookers underneath and Jamie George is snapping at his heels, Jamie’s still got to prove whenever he gets a start that he clearly should be wearing that England No.2 jersey.”
Easter, now defence coach at Quins after winning 54 caps for England, added: “A lot is also down to your environment; we know Northampton are struggling but the England environment is flourishing and Dylan is leading that.
“He might not make the breaks Jamie or some of the other guys do, but he certainly does his job and if his style of leadership and what he does in the week works and he’s bringing out another 5-10 per cent in 14 other players, then you must support him.
“Dylan might not be as good individually or have as much X-factor as guys like Jamie and Luke Cowan-Dickie, but he’s of more value to the group.”
Meanwhile, Easter is confident that Harlequins No.8 Jack Clifford will roar back from injury to challenge for an England spot during the Six Nations.
Forgotten man Clifford, 24, has been dogged by injury since winning his tenth cap against Italy last February, but is due back from shoulder surgery next month.
Easter said: “I really feel for Jack, who’s had a spate of injuries at crucial times, but he knows that’s the nature of sport and it’s only going to make him mentally tougher.
“Those are dark days – the rehab, the plateauing and seeing someone else playing in your position – and it will be eating away at him. But at the same time that will be a massive motivating factor for Jack to come back as good as he can be.
“He’s well on top of things mentally, not moping around, and we’re looking at a return in mid-February. He’s then got to play a couple of club games to prove his match fitness before joining England in camp, but I believe he’ll do it.
“It’s become a real game of opportunity now and you need a bit of luck because you’ve seen how Sam Simmonds has come on to the scene and taken his chance, but I expect Jack to come back strong and really challenge for that spot.”
Easter also believes flanker Chris Robshaw is playing the best rugby of his career and that fears the 31-year-old workhorse might not make it through to Japan 2019 can be allayed.
The former England No.8 said: “You can’t play without Chris. He’s been a stalwart of Eddie Jones’ regime, one of his better players, and has been exceptional for Quins – his work-rate is just through the rook and he holds a team together.
“There’s a group of players who were involved in the last World Cup – especially Chris as captain – who fell a long way short. He took the ultimate responsibility for that so he’s more driven and motivated than anyone to rectify it.
“Not having that armband responsibility means he’s a bit more relaxed, but he learnt a lot from those four years as England captain and now he’s performing a support role to Dylan. He’ll still be one of England’s best players in 2019.”