Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, reports how Eddie Jones had the last word once again over the Dylan Hartley saga and keeps his fingers crossed for Big Billy.
The Christmas decorations came down last weekend to signal the end of the festive season and no sooner had we seen off that jamboree than another season came into view. And we are not talking Easter bunnies here.
Yes folks, it is kick Dylan time again because it seems like everyone is lining up to have a crack at the England captain – except the one bloke who really matters.
And not for the first time the bloke who really matters had the last word. But more of that later.
In the meantime……………
Roll up, roll up to give a man who has captained England to 22 wins out of 23, since 2016, a good old fashioned portion of shoe pie and run him out of town.
Roll up, roll up to give a man who has captained England to their most sustained period of success since the glory days of Martin Johnson a kick in the unmentionables.
And roll up, roll up to give a man who will win his 90th cap for England on 4 February against Italy a quick right-hander and a P45.
In the words of Harold Macmillan, barring a period between 2000 and 2003, England rugby fans have ‘never had it so good’. So why is all this flak flying about the skipper with the Six Nations looming?
A Six Nations, that is, where England could become the first team to win the tournament three times in a row.
This is all about Dylan. It always seems to be about Dylan – red cards, yellow cards, bans, punch-ups, captaincy, good form, bad form and all the rest. It is hard to keep up sometimes.
Dylan Hartley is not everyone’s cup of tea but Eddie Jones sees something in him and if England screw up in the not too distant future then it is Eddie’s job that is on the line.
And like one of Macmillan’s successors as Prime Minister, Eddie is not for turning.
King Eddie is off and over the sunset in 2019 after the next World Cup, so he is probably not too worried about succession planning.
And England don’t need to be, at hooker, when they have got the likes of Jamie George, Tommy Taylor, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Dunn on the books or at captain, where Owen Farrell will surely take over.
But Eddie is copping some flak for keeping Hartley as skipper. It takes some doing to attract flak when you have been on a run like the England boss – so he must be doing something right.
In October 2016, after Saracens monumental away win in Toulon, we wrote that if Hartley ever got crocked for a long period of time, George would be the man to step up.
And nothing has changed our minds. In fact, if Jones named George as starting hooker for the entire Six Nations we wouldn’t have a problem with it.
But the coach might.
What our favourite Aussie is worried about is having a right-hand man who can get his message over to the troops between now and 2019 and bring the World Cup back to Twickenham for the first time since Johnno’s glory boys.
And what is Hartley supposed to do? Tell Jones to stick his offer of the captaincy where the sun don’t shine? You can’t blame a man for taking up the offer to lead an international rugby team. Who would put that one back over the net.
In the brilliant recent Australian cricket documentary, Forged in Fire, there was an interview with the great Ian Botham documenting his decision to take over the England captaincy in 1980.
That did not go well.
England’s greatest cricketer never won a Test match as skipper, was sacked two Tests into the 1981 Ashes but by the end of that series the six games were, and forever will be, known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’.
Botham could not captain a side like Hartley does and Hartley cannot play rugby like Botham played cricket.
But Botham’s main point was that even though he was not the right man for the job, who was he to knock it back? Likewise Hartley even though this observer, and Jones obviously, thinks the hooker is still the right man for the job.
Hartley seems to have been making a pretty good fist of getting the show on the road to Japan 2019. But there really is no pleasing some people.
Ex-internationals such as Lawrence Dallaglio and Austin Healey have lined up to have a crack at Hartley and with some justification.
Dallaglio was King Bee at Wasps, even when he was tearing it up with England, and is perplexed by why Hartley can’t do the same.
Dallaglio and Hartley are different beasts and frankly that is Northampton’s problem – not Jones’.
Just like certain cricketers can’t turn it on in front of one man and a dog Hartley has not been turning it on at Franklin’s Gardens in front of 12,000-odd and no dogs.
As well as being an England captain with a win ratio something over 95 per cent Hartley has also been captain of Northampton during one of their most disastrous runs since the Old King died.
That run ended on Saturday when Saints beat Gloucester 22-19 for a first win in 12 Premiership and European games. Northampton won but Hartley couldn’t.
Northampton were losing when he went off and nicked the game at the death, when the bloke who had replaced him, Mikey Haywood, looked he had scored.
As it turned out Haywood, who is a decent club player but is unlikely to play Test rugby, was done for a double movement but Saints got a penalty try anyway. Cue more aggro for Hartley. Saints only won because he was off the pitch and all that associated cobblers – and that was only coming from the locals.
Everyone has been on Hartley’s case saying he is not fit to play for, or captain, England – and some even reckon he should not even be first pick for Northampton.
A few of us hardy hacks went down to see Jones in a wind-swept Brighton in the week and Dylan, it had to be Dylan, was top of the agenda. And we left with a flea in our ear – poor club form means diddly squat on Planet Eddie.
“I don’t watch club rugby to assess them on how they play at clubs,” he told us. “I watch club rugby to assess how they are going to play at international level, which is completely different. Some guys can be outstanding club players and be poor at international level. Some guys can be poor club players and outstanding international players. As long as Dylan’s attitude is right, his body is right, he brings something to the table that we need at the moment and that is strong leadership.”
That told us then. Dylan is going nowhere and as usual Eddie had the last word.
Move along please, business as usual – there is nothing to see here.
George North, Hallam Amos, Ellis Genge, Elliot Daly, Joe Marler, Dan Lydiate, Ben Te’o, Zander Fagerson, James Ryan, Nathan Hughes…..have we missed any out yet?
Yep, probably about 10, but that is a brief list of some of the players who are doubtful for the start of the Six Nations because of injury or, in Marler’s case, stupidity.
One bloke who should be back for the start of the tournament is Billy Vunipola and if there are some people who think that Dylan Hartley should not be in the England team – no-one thinks that about Big Billy.
The No.8 has been out of action since the end of September when he crocked his knee playing for Saracens against Sale. He missed the autumn internationals and four rounds of Europe for his club, who went on a run of seven straight defeats whilst Vunipola had his plastered knee up.
But he rumbled on for Saracens against Wasps on Sunday to help his team to a 38-15 win victory as if he had never been away. The trademark carries from a standing start were there, not many can do that, the offloads were there, and the smile was there.
No ball carrier in the world fixes the defence like Vunipola before getting his skates on. Most just get the ball and plough into traffic with their nut down.
Vunipola has a peek and then goes – and he can do it because he can get momentum, from God knows where, when he is standing still.
Being the best part of 20 stone helps, but you have to have feet and a brain as well or else every lummox would be at it.
There is also something slightly old-fashioned about Vunipola. The shorts look a bit long, the Barnet is still dodgy, but he can play all right.
Big Billy is back and let’s hope it stays that way.
Hughes, of Wasps, and Sam Simmonds, of Exeter, did turns at No.8 for England during the three-game autumn series but with the greatest of respect to that pair, they are nowhere near Vunipola.
It takes something to overshadow the Maro Itoje circus these days. Itoje also came back for Saracens on Sunday, after a month out with a broken jaw, but Billy was the ring master.
The 25-year-old only played once for Eddie Jones and England this year, that was against Ireland in Dublin, and missed out on the Lions tour with a shoulder injury.
Let’s hope Vunipola gets a decent run of games now because no one will be having a ruck with Jones when he picks Big Billy.