As Eddie Jones begins to settle in to new surroundings at Twickenham, he already has his hands full with one particular decision. The dismal showing at the World Cup, saw the end of one reign, in the shape of coach Stuart Lancaster, and may spell the end for another, captain Chris Robshaw. With many English fans calling for new direction on-the-field to complement the changes off-the-field, here are a few contenders who could take on the captaincy.
At 24 and already an established member within the England set-up, the Wasps lock seems an ideal candidate to lead England forward to the 2019 World Cup in Japan. A player who has ironed out the flaws in his game that seemed to hold him back for a while, Launchbury is starting to show the form that saw him burst on to the international scene in 2012 and pushed him into contention for the Lions tour of 2013. Despite missing out on that tour, you sense that Launchbury is a much better player for that experience having gone away and worked on his game over the last two years. Despite this, the fact that he fell behind Geoff Parling and Courteney Lawes in the second-row pecking order at the World Cup is a concern. The captain of any sports team should be the first name on the team-sheet and almost always is an automatic pick. Giving the captaincy to a player, who some might say is currently the third-best lock in the country is a dangerous move. In many ways Launchbury is an ideal fit for the captaincy. At 24 he is young enough to learn over the next four years as a captain leading up to a World Cup, but is also experienced enough to command respect with 28 caps to his name already. Similarities with Martin Johnson are inevitable given his size and playing position, and giving the captaincy to a young star like Launchbury may revitalise England’s fortunes.
Somewhat of a left-field choice, Harlequins full-back Brown has emerged as a shock candidate for the captaincy over the last few weeks. Having consolidated himself as England’s first-choice full-back over the last two years, Brown has been one of the most consistent performers for England in that time and has emerged as one of the most dangerous attackers in the game. At 30 years of age and with over 40 international caps, Brown has sufficient experience to take on the captaincy in an England side that at this moment in time lacks somewhat in terms of experience and leadership. The brutal honesty he has shown when talking about England’s performances in the World Cup, also show that he is a man who doesn’t mince his words – characteristics often seen in the best captains at international level. Yet looking forward to the next World Cup, England will ideally want a captain who can progress in the role over the next few years with the aim of leading England into the next World Cup in Japan as a battle-hardened leader at test level. In 2019, Brown will be 34 and unlike forwards such as Richie McCaw and Paul O’Connell who have remained at their peak past the age of 30, backs such as Mike Brown tend to enjoy their peak years earlier and tend to fade slightly in the later years of their career. In a position such as full-back, where young exciting attackers are likely to challenge Brown over the next few years, it is very optimistic to think that Brown will still be England’s first-choice full-back in 2019, in which case giving the captaincy to him may only be a short-term solution. As well as this the fact that Brown himself seemed to lose his discipline at the World Cup in games against Wales and Australia, is not a great indicator that he should be captain. At international level a captain must be able to keep his emotions in check and Brown has been known in the past to let his emotions get the better of him at times. Despite this at a time when England are likely to look at changing personnel within the squad, Brown looks likely to keep his place on merit given his performances over the last few years, and for that reason he remains a contender.
Another player who people might be surprised to see in contention for the captaincy, Ben Youngs may turn out to be an inspired choice for captain. With over 50 international caps to his name, Youngs has been involved in the English set-up for long enough to be given the responsibility of leading his nation. Having burst on to the scene as a nippy twenty-year old in 2010, Youngs has developed as a player in the full glare of international rugby. Having lost his place to rival scrum-half Danny Care in 2014, Youngs usurped his compatriot this year with some excellent performances in the Six Nations sealing him the first-choice scrum-half berth for the World Cup. Having recently experienced captaincy at club level with Leicester Tigers, Youngs is now developing into more of a leader and with his best years still ahead of him would be an ideal fit for captain. An established member of this current England team and having played a crucial part in the British and Irish Lions’ successful tour of Australia in 2013, the Tigers No.9 is one of few players in the current England team who could command respect from every single player regardless of age. Standing at just 5ft 10in tall, there is a feeling that some England fans would want a captain of greater physical presence in the mould of someone like Joe Launchbury, to possess a leader of the stature of the great Martin Johnson. Yet on top form, Youngs remains hands-down the best No.9 in English rugby and at 26 is old enough to become captain, yet also young enough to still be captain and first-choice scrum-half when the World Cup comes around in 2019. In my opinion, Eddie Jones could do a lot worse than placing his faith in Ben Youngs.
An extremely controversial choice given his awful disciplinary record, Hartley is a player who some are still talking about as captaincy material. Despite his record, the Northampton Saints hooker remains by far the best hooker in England and it was only another disciplinary ban that saw him lose his place in the England team for the World Cup to Tom Youngs. Stuart Lancaster’s decision to remove Hartley from the World Cup squad – despite Hartley being eligible to play after serving his ban – may have proved a decisive factor in the former school head-teacher losing his job. Like many of his team-mates, Tom Youngs did not cover himself in glory during the tournament with some poor performances in the scrum and at line-out time – both areas where Dylan Hartley excels. Despite his discipline often getting him into trouble, Hartley remains arguably one of the best hookers around. Ironically his sending-off in the 2013 Premiership final and the subsequent ban saw him miss out on the Lions tour of 2013, after initially being selected in Warren Gatland’s squad. Although the Lions won the tour 2-1, the performances of hookers Tom Youngs, Richard Hibbard and Rory Best were mixed and left many British and Irish fans wondering if the Lions would have won the tour more convincingly had Hartley been involved. Having captained Northampton before, Hartley has experience in leading a team, would not shirk the responsibility and with 66 caps is one of the most experienced players around in England. The position of hooker demands a nasty edge as shown by South Africa’s Bismarck du Plessis, and perhaps surprisingly Hartley doesn’t possess as poor a disciplinary record at international level than he does at club level. A divisive character, Hartley may be just what is needed to restore England back to the top of international rugby.
Captain of the last four years and on-field leader at the World Cup, Harlequins flanker Robshaw looks likely to lose the captaincy under Jones. Following a tournament where his decision-making was once again called into question, Robshaw is under severe pressure and seems likely to follow a similar path as Lancaster in losing his role as captain and quite possibly his place in England’s starting XV come the Six Nations in a few months time. More naturally suited to blindside flanker, Robshaw was shoe-horned into the No.7 jersey at international level in 2012 due to the lack of options at openside flanker at that time. Given the captaincy once again largely due to the lack of other options, Robshaw was given a role that made him a near-certain starter at the World Cup. However, over time performances from players such as Will Fraser and more particularly that of Steffon Armitage, put pressure on Lancaster to select a more-natural openside. Lancaster refused to buckle and so led to England suffering at the World Cup with both Wales and Australia gaining an edge at the breakdown through natural openside flankers such as Sam Warburton, Michael Hooper and David Pocock, which ultimately led to victories for the Welsh and Australians. Robshaw ultimately benefited from the RFU’s policy of only selecting players based in England, with Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage missing out mainly because of that policy. With pressure from fans to change the ruling as well as performances from young stars Luke Wallace and Jack Clifford putting pressure on him at club level, Chris Robshaw’s international future remains unclear. Yet with Jones set to meet up with Robshaw to discuss issues at international level, it is not inconceivable that the Aussie coach will give Robshaw a second chance to prove himself as captain. With 42 caps to his name as England captain, Robshaw has won more caps as captain than Martin Johnson and is only behind Will Carling who won 59 caps as England captain. During that time Robshaw has developed as a captain and is an articulate leader who has many characteristics that mark him down as a good choice for captain. However with many claiming him to be a great club player rather than a great international it remains to be seen whether he has a future with England at test level.