Ollie Phillips: Who should be England's first-choice hooker, Dylan Hartley or Jamie George?

 
Ollie Phillips
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Hartley has started games under Jones, with George tending to replace him in the second-half (Source: Getty)

An intriguing battle awaits on Sunday when England’s two leading hookers, Dylan Hartley and Jamie George, go head-to-head as Northampton Saints host Saracens in the European Champions Cup.

George’s hat-trick on Sunday has reopened the debate into whether he or Hartley should be England’s first choice and based on form alone over the last year it is difficult to look beyond the Saracens man.

The only time I have seen George slightly under-perform was for the British and Irish Lions during the summer when his line-outs weren’t straight, but he is the standout hooker in England in terms of all-round game.

If Hartley wasn’t England captain then it would be much easier for Eddie Jones to pick on form, but you cannot argue with the 31-year-old’s leadership and his record as skipper – one defeat in 20 Test matches.

The two of them are such contrasting players. George has the upper hand in the loose where he is dynamic and relentless given his great engine. At scrum time he is very powerful but it’s his play in the loose which gives him the edge over Hartley.

South African World Cup winner John Smit, who played for Saracens between 2011 and 2013, has said that he may not look the part but George is the real deal and you can’t argue with that.

Hartley is combative, attritional and will get in an opponent’s face. He is a master of the dark arts and will play on the edge of the game, relying on the physical and mental domination of a rival.

He is confrontational and a ‘follow me to the trenches’ kind of player, although he is very competent technically also.

It is important to remember too that Hartley has been around a long time and had to weather various disciplinary storms, which will make you more appreciative and confident in dealing with the challenges of being England captain.

And he has become such a figurehead for England. Hartley wasn’t selected for the Lions this summer, George was. While that would have been a kick in teeth for Hartley at the time, that now plays in his favour with England duty back in focus.

Hartley went on the tour of Argentina and his standing as Jones’s go-to man will only have been enhanced, while that consistency in selection of captain and level of trust would also have been fortified.

Jones has so far started matches with Hartley but replaced him with George, quite often between the 40th and 50th-minute mark. If there was to be a change in that structure, it has to be in England’s matches next month.

The autumn internationals mark the two-year countdown to the World Cup in Japan and whatever we see on the field during November is likely to be the basis of who starts the tournament.

On raw ability, technique and consistency of performance, George has to start. On leadership capability, doggedness, nous and familiarity of selection, Hartley gets the nod.

George is the No1 hooker in the country but Hartley is an exceptional leader who has galvanised an England side and dragged it through to be No2 in the world. It is arguably the most consistent England side we’ve ever seen and he deserves huge credit.

The reality is they are neck and neck. I believe it will be Hartley starting against Argentina at Twickenham on 11 November. For me, that’s the right call – just.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

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