England vs South Africa: Dylan Hartley starts as co-captain with Owen Farrell as autumn internationals begin

After sitting out the summer tour with concussion, Hartley beats Jamie George to selection and admits he is 'delighted' to still be in the mix given his 2018 troubles

Jack de Menezes
Vilamoura
Wednesday 31 October 2018 21:03
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England rugby training session in Portugal

Dylan Hartley will return to England’s starting line-up on Saturday to begin the final push towards the Rugby World Cup, with the hooker selected ahead of Jamie George after missing the summer tour of South Africa with concussion.

England have an immediate chance to gain revenge against the Springboks this weekend, having suffered a 2-1 series defeat five months ago, and with just 13 matches between now and the start of Japan 2019, Eddie Jones has recalled his chief lieutenant in the hope of sparking the side into life.

Hartley is fully aware of the danger that George poses, given he started all three British and Irish Lions Tests last year and was part of the Premiership-winning Saracens side. But as he prepares to win his 94th England cap this weekend, the 32-year-old accepted that he is fortunate to still be able to represent his country given the testing 2018 he has endured after missing three months of action.

“I’m delighted I’m still here,” Hartley said. “I’m delighted I still have the chance to play for England. Everyone asks about trying to get to 100 games. I can honestly say I’m not counting. I’m just looking forward to the next one because you don’t know when your last game is and your time is up.

“What I’ve realised when people start talking about 100 Tests, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain. The higher you get up it, the harder it gets. That keeps me grounded. I want to make sure I enjoy this weekend.”

Hartley will lead a new-look pack that will feature one of the Exeter Chiefs looseheads - Alec Hepburn or Ben Moon - in the absence of Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and a host of other options due to injury problems. But he will not be the only person who leads the team after being named co-captain with Owen Farrell for the Quilter Internationals with Jones looking to adjust how leadership of the team is shared between experienced players.

Hartley stressed though that it is no different to how the pair have operated in the past, given that Farrell took over the captaincy in South Africa, and the relationship between them allows duties to be shared both on and off the pitch.

“It has been in place for the last three years anyway,” he added. “You could chuck another couple of names into that mix. There are guys from Sunday to Friday who help lead and prepare the team that are aligned with the coaches. From this day on, the coaches take a step back, the preparation work, the knowledge side of it is done.

“It is for the likes of Owen and myself to really drive it forward and build it up towards the weekend. In terms of the (co-captain) role, I think it has just got an official title now.

Dylan Hartley starts for England this Saturday against South Africa

“I’ve always roomed with Owen, I’ve always bounced ideas off him. He has always been a sounding board for me and vice-versa, pre-meetings, pre-and-post-training, any ideas have always been discussed in our room at Pennyhill Park.

“So you chuck a couple of other players into that. One thing I’ve learned is to utilise guys around you – George Ford, Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Maro Itoje, George Kruis – these guys are really good in their areas of expertise.

“On the field, [Farrell] is who he is. He plays and he competes and he leads by example. Off the field, it’s been seamless, he is no different. He presents meetings. He asks questions and provides answers. He is very much the same person.”

With Jones announcing his first squad of the autumn on Thursday morning, time is running out to get England into the shape required to prove they belong against the likes of South Africa and, more alarmingly, New Zealand, who loom firmly on the horizon as they visit Twickenham next weekend.

That’s why the Australian has not been afraid to wield the axe where necessary, with 72-cap Mike Brown among the 10 players sent home this week after being overlooked for selection.

Ben Morgan and Michael Rhodes were also surprise omissions, having been expected to feature in the starting XV, let along the match-day squad, only for Jones to go with the untested options of Zach Mercer and Mark Wilson that appears to be a decision made with one eye on Japan 2019 and not the Springboks.

Hartley returns as co-captain alongside Owen Farrell (Getty )

But Hartley believes it is something that has to happen in order for the best to be brought out of the squad, and the important part is how the likes of Brown react to the news they’re going home early, given that in the World Cup they will still be needed to step up to the required level in training against the selected side.

“It happens to all of us,” Hartley said. “We speak about this year being really important for us in terms of performance, results and definitely growing together as a team that unity because we are going to get to a World Cup and not everyone can play or get off the bench.

“There is going to be a group of guys who can’t play and unfortunately for Mike this week it’s him. His role within that, we openly speak about that, making sure we prepare the team the best we can so that we play well on Saturday and Mike executed his role in helping to do that, unbelievably well for the team.”

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