Eddie Jones, sporting a bandaged left eye, today handed the England captaincy to Dylan Hartley for the Six Nations defence despite the Northampton hooker having missed six weeks following his latest ban for foul play.
Hartley lined up with the other Six Nations captains for the official launch of the tournament in London today having flown in with Jones from England’s training camp in Portugal. Jones last week put Hartley- who has served a total 0f 60 weeks in bans in his controversial career – through a personal fitness test which he passed. Hartley has been a key figure in Jones’s unbeaten reign as England head coach which started with the Six Nations Grand Slam last year.
It was Jones’s fitness that was the talk of the launch after he arrived with a bandage around his blackening left eye which has a nasty cut above it after slipping in the shower at his Sunningdale home this morning. It was an interesting counterpoint to suggestions that picking Hartley again was an accident waiting to happen.
Hartley said:”The team is preparing really well in Portugal for a huge first game against France. In the Autumn there were a lot of column inches about injuries to Maro Itoje and George Kruis and it meant there were opportunities for other players. We have got good strength in depth and we are in a good place.”
England have put together a 14 man unbeaten run – including the final game of the 2015 World Cup – and are the Grand Slam champions but injuries and Hartley’s suspension have made it an uncomfortable build up to the title defence.
Besides Hartley’s lack of match practise, Jones has injury worries over George Kruis(cheekbone), James Haskell(toe) and Jack Clifford(chest) while Joe Marler is attempting to prove he has made a remarkable recovery from a broken leg.
Kruis is confident of being fit to face France in the opening match at Twickenham on February 4 and said: “We’re hungrier this time around. We want to be the number one team in the world and to do that we have to win every game.
“It’s definitely going to be harder to win this time because teams try and figure you out.We’ve been together for a year and a half and other teams think they’ve got a grasp of you, so you’ve always got to stay ahead of the curve. Everyone wants to try and beat the champs.
“For me it’s about the players leading it a bit more. Then you get a better grasp of how you want to play and there’s a bit more ownership of how you want to do it.Then you get the clarity and off the back of that you can own it a bit more and play like you say.”
The Six Nations will feature bonus points for the first time in its history and it is a move that is designed to increase the number of tries being scored and give teams an incentive to gain a losing bonus point.
Scotland are being tipped to be a surprise packet in the Championship and captain Greig Laidlaw said:” Over the last three years we have increased the depth of the squad and we are reaping the rewards. The manner of the way Glasgow have been playing has been brilliant and we want that confidence to spread throughout the squad. It is exciting times.”
Ireland’s Rory Best knows the final game of the championship could be a title decider in Dublin and said:”We are trying to build on the win over New Zealand in November but that is in the past. “