Owens injury puts Hartley on stand-by for late invitation to Lions tour squad
Dylan Hartley may yet feature in the Lions tour of New Zealand after Ken Owens, the Wales hooker, was ruled out of the Scarlets' play-off match against Leinster tonight with an ankle injury.
As captain of England's back-to-back Six Nations-winning team, Hartley was the highest-profile omission from the Lions' 41-man squad. Head coach Warren Gatland selected Rory Best, Owens and Jamie George ahead of Hartley, who also missed the 2013 Lions tour to Australia after picking up an 11-match suspension.
Gatland indicated at the time of the squad announcement that the choice for the final hooking berth came down to Hartley and George, his England understudy. That should mean that Hartley is the next cab on the rank, although Scotland's Fraser Brown has his supporters.
All will depend on the severity of Owens's ankle injury, which he sustained at the start of the week in training for the Scarlets. The 30-year-old was then assessed at the Lions training camp at the Vale of Glamorgan, although there were few details forthcoming.
"Ken is missing a big game for the Scarlets, but with a bit of luck he will be OK for the tour," Neil Jenkins, the Lions skills coach, said. "Players do get injured but we hope he will be fine, if not for the final then for the Lions."
A call will be made next week at the Lions' training camp at Carton House. Scarlets have already indicated that Owens would not be available for the final should they beat Leinster. With the squad flying to New Zealand on May 29 and due to play their first game four days after they land, that leaves a small window in which Owens can make a full recovery. The Lions would be unable to afford the risk of carrying only two fit hookers in their squad for that first match against the New Zealand Barbarians in Whangarei.
Certainly Gatland will not want to lose Owens, who was the form hooker in the Six Nations. Scrum-half Ben Youngs was the first player to withdraw, on account of his sister-in-law's terminal illness.
Gatland's nerves will undoubtedly be further frayed this weekend when more than half his squad are likely to be involved in the Premiership and Guinness Pro12 play-offs. Hartley is also set to start -Northampton's Champions Cup play-off semi-final against Connacht tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Ian Ritchie has fully backed England head coach Eddie Jones over his selection of New Zealand-born pair Willi Heinz and Jason Woodward, with the departing of the Rugby Football Union chief praising the Australian for his efforts since lifting the team off rock bottom after the "difficult" 2015 Rugby World Cup failure.
The 63-year-old Ritchie announced yesterday that he will retire from his role at the end of the summer, because it is "a good time in terms of transition for the union." He does so with England ranked second in the world, back-to-back Six Nations champions and, under Jones as head coach, having equalled the record winning streak after they matched New Zealand by winning 18 consecutive matches.
After insisting that he doesn't regret appointing Stuart Lancaster as head coach back in 2012 despite England's pool stage exit in their home World Cup, Ritchie explained that the search for a new head coach that resulted in Jones being prised away from the Stormers in South Africa was one the reinvigorated him, but added that Jones has surpassed all expectations over his first 18 months in charge.
"I felt very driven after the World Cup despite all the disappointments in 2015 that there was a responsibility to say what are you going to do next?" Ritchie said. "One felt Eddie was the right person for the job - did the trip to Cape Town - but one never thought he would win 18 games on the bounce. That is testament to what he is and what he brings."
However, he has also brought controversy. Jones has not hesitated in calling up players who were born overseas, with Wasps No 8 Nathan Hughes, Northampton back-row Teimana Harrison and Worcester centre Ben Te'o all making their England debuts during his reign. He has continued that with his latest squad selection, with New Zealand-born Denny Solomona handed his first call-up, while Heinz and Woodward were brought into their three-week training camp this week, despite growing up dreaming of playing for the All Blacks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)