Eddie Jones has defended his captain, Dylan Hartley, and compared him to Mike Brearley after Warren Gatland hinted he may not select the hooker in his British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand in the summer.
After Jones’s side failed to complete consecutive grand slams, Gatland also suggested Hartley, who is still among the bookies’ favourites to be Lions captain, was under increasing pressure from England’s backup No2 Jamie George. Hartley has started all 18 England matches under Jones but came into the championship lacking match sharpness and was replaced by George before the hour mark in all five Six Nations games.
Brearley was England’s inspirational captain during the 1981 Ashes series but while his leadership was lauded, his batting stats – he failed to make a Test century in his career – were not up to scratch, prompting continued debate over whether he warranted a place in the side.
“Dylan is an outstanding captain. I’m not discussing Lions selection but he is an outstanding captain for us and does a super job. There’s no reason why he won’t continue to do a super job,” Jones said. “It’s like when Mike Brearley captained the England cricket team; everyone questioned him, then he won the Ashes and no one questioned him.
“I thought he was better than he was in November – and there’s no reason why, the next time he comes in, he can’t be better than he was this time. As long as he keeps improving, he’s in the right direction, like every other player.”
Jones is adamant England’s 2019 World Cup plan remains intact despite a first defeat under his and Hartley’s tenure. “It’s not great to lose but it’s a great learning experience,” he said. “There’s no scar there at all. Those sorts of things harden you because you learn from them and you don’t want them to happen again.”
He brushed off England’s failure to surpass New Zealand’s 18-match winning streak by pointing to the All Blacks’ 24-year wait to win the World Cup. Without what Jones believes may be as many as 15 players on the Lions tour of New Zealand, Jones will take a developmental squad to Argentina in the summer before an autumn campaign that he hopes will kick off with the mooted fixture against the All Blacks on 4 November.
“You guys know the history of rugby. You know what the All Blacks had to go through to win the World Cup in 2011,” he said. “They lost the semi-final against us in 2003 in Australia, they lost the quarter-final in 2007. They got to the final in 2011 and they had to have a very kind referee to get them home. That’s how hard it is for them to win. So to lose the grand slam game when we’ve already got the trophy is hardly a scar, it’s a learning experience.
“I think New Zealand are there for the taking. You’ve got to play well against them; play smart against them, but the sort of personnel the Lions could field against them, could be the sort of team that could do that. But you’ve got to win that first Test. That is winner-takes-all. If you don’t win that first Test, you’re out of the series. I’m sure Warren knows that. As I said we are very keen to play that game [on 4 November] and if it comes across we will be well prepared.”
Jones also challenged his side to make history by winning a third consecutive Six Nations title next year. “No one’s ever won three [Six Nations] in a row,” he said. “To win grand slams you’ve got to be at your best five games in a row. There’s a cycle to performance and it’s hard to put together more than three games. Look at Word Cup games – the teams that win World Cups always have a performance that is slightly off.”