With just under a year to go until the rugby world convenes on to Japan, this Autumn Internationals campaign may represent the final opportunity for international coaches to experiment with their teams.
With that in mind Eddie Jones’ decision to appoint Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell as co-captains for England maybe should not be seen as such a surprise.
After a disappointing year that has seen England win //\just three of eight test matches, Jones is under pressure to get England back to the form that saw them win two consecutive Six Nations championships at the start of his reign.
The debate over the England captaincy has been a long-running argument amongst some supporters.
There is no doubt that Dylan Hartley has been a successful captain for England, having led his country to two Six Nations titles as well as a 3-0 series win in Australia. However having come under increasing pressure from younger, more mobile hookers such as Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie in recent times, the question remains as to whether Hartley should be in the team let alone be captain, especially when the Northampton hooker has been regularly taken off early in test matches by Jones when games are often still in the balance.
For Owen Farrell, there are no such worries. The talisman of this England team, Farrell is Eddie Jones’ most-trusted lieutenant out on the field and under Jones’ stewardship his influence on this England side has grown and grown. When Farrell plays well, England play well.
At 27 years-old and having already captained a successful Saracens side on many occasions, Farrell is no stranger to the role of leader and even captained his country – in the absence of regular captain Hartley – on the recent tour of South Africa.
Despite losing that series 2-1, Jones has clearly seen enough to suggest that Farrell merits sharing the captaincy with Hartley for this autumn series.
Yet with the World Cup fast approaching is this a sustainable model for success?
Co-captaincy may be a familiar sight in club rugby, but it is something of a rarity in the international game, with pretty much all of the Tier One test nations having one captain supported by a couple of vice-captains.
Recent history suggests that to win a World Cup you need a team full of leaders. England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson was flanked by experienced leaders such as Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, whilst in 2015 New Zealand’s Richie McCaw had the likes of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Kieran Read to ably support him. Whilst this support was crucial to both teams’ ultimate success, there was no disputing in either case that out on the field Johnson and McCaw were the ones calling the shots and thus decisions were made clearly and with no second guessing. Is that possible with two captains on the pitch?
Farrell has been touted as an England captain for a long time by both fans and pundits alike, and giving him the co-captaincy now so soon before the World Cup may be something of a hint that Jones sees him as the man to lead his England side in Japan, but as England’s most important player Jones may also be wary of heaping even more responsibility on to Farrell’s shoulders.
Making Hartley and Farrell co-captains is a compromise in that Farrell can be eased in to a potential captaincy role whilst not stripping the captaincy from Hartley, and Jones avoids alienating a key senior member of his squad at a time when he needs everyone singing from the same hymn-sheet.
However the jury is out as to whether this is a long-term solution or just a quick-fix.
By Jon Davies