Dylan Hartley: I must earn my England place and prove I am better than Jamie George
Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley goes head-to-head with fierce rival Jamie George on Sunday in the Champions Cup insisting there is no guarantee of him staying as England captain for the November Tests – nor any complacency on his part.
George missed Saracens’ 55-24 demolition of the Saints on the opening weekend of the season, making Sunday’s fixture the first time the hookers have faced each other since George started all three Tests for the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand.
With many calling for Eddie Jones to select George for the autumn internationals off the back of his form for the Lions, Hartley’s sole focus for now is on performing strongly for his club.
Hartley said: “I’m an aspiring England player. I’m not an England player. If I play well for my club, as an aspiring England player, then good, I’ll give myself a good shot. Eddie has made it clear that he is not just picking players because of what they have done [before]. It needs to be earned.”
That blank slate according to Hartley also extends to his England captaincy, despite his excellent winning record leading his country, with the 31-year-old taking note of George’s hat-trick for Saracens against Wasps last Sunday.
Hartley has captained England to 19 wins in 20 Tests since taking over from Chris Robshaw following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, including the recent two-match tour of Argentina.
“[I’m an] aspiring England captain. If it is on anyone, it is on me to make an example. I need to be playing well. Try and score a hat-trick this weekend!”
While George was the No 1 choice for the Lions at hooker this summer, he has yet to start a Test for England, making 17 appearances from the bench and 14 of those to replace Hartley since Jones took charge.
“We have got a good working relationship and again I look forward to the challenge,” Hartley said. “It is not about me and him. We are team-mates in another environment, so it works.”
Northampton have won four out of five since that horror show at Twickenham, with results against Leicester Tigers and Bath turning around a season which appeared destined for trouble.
Hartley and the squad had a day’s less training this week to go clay pigeon shooting, allowing for some extra rest, before a fixture that Hartley feels will offer a good indication of where Northampton now stand as a team, with an emphasis on physicality being stressed in training ahead of Sunday.
“Six weeks ago we got a hiding,” Hartley acknowledges. “That was us being at one end of the scale and they at the other. It was a good thing for us, that first game, in a roundabout way.
“The sun was shining, the grass looked good and we were winning games and then you get a humbling defeat like that. To get another shot to test ourselves again against the European champions and league leaders domestically is a good opportunity for us to see where we are at.
“We went back to the drawing board. When everything is going well you can cut corners and have complacent preparations so we went back to basics.
“One thing we lacked in that game – and you cannot lack in a game of rugby – is physicality. You can’t take to the pitch if you are not going to be physical because you are on the back foot all day and it is a very difficult game to be in when you are not winning collisions.”