Captaincy conundrum for Jones


“Fast Eddie” on a go-slow? It doesn't sound quite right. But none of the obvious contenders for the leadership role is assured of his place in the starting line-up - a red-line demand as far as Jones is concerned - so the only sensible approach is to take it match by match. Perhaps even half by half. It may well be that no prime candidate emerges until the three-Test tour of Wallaby country in June.

As recently as two weeks ago, the leading bookmakers were so convinced that Jones was about to become the first overseas coach to take charge of the national team, they suspended betting. There is no such confidence among the tic-tac brigade on this subject: indeed, the odds are all over the shop, to the extent that Chris Robshaw, the much-criticised incumbent, remains third favourite - even though the world and his maiden aunt expects him to be ditched ahead of the opening Six Nations game with Scotland at Murrayfield in early February.

Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)

The man who led England into their home World Cup in mid-September - a grim adventure that was done and dusted long before mid-October - must have a backbone the width of the M3 and the hide of an elderly rhino just to be playing at all.

Much of the dirt that continues to be thrown his way is misdirected: over the course of a 42-match stint as skipper under Stuart Lancaster, he was the pick of the red-rose pack as least as often as he wasn't. As for his win rate of almost 60 per cent - let's just say it was better than Lawrence Dallaglio's, or Martin Corry's, or Lewis Moody's.

But the new coach is on record as stating that whatever Robshaw may be at Test level, he isn't an open-side flanker. Quins seem to have reached a similar conclusion themselves while publicly defending him to the hilt, and if he is to make a new international career for himself in the No 6 position, he must find a way past some very strong blindside operators, from Tom Wood and James Haskell among the incumbents to Dave Ewers and Maro Itoje among the uncapped brigade. A guaranteed starter? Hardly.

Tom Wood (Northampton)

Wood might have been England captain back in 2012, but for some ill-timed orthopaedic hassle. Lancaster, freshly installed as England's interim coach, balanced his claims against those of Robshaw and would have faced a ticklish choice had the fiercely combative Midlander stayed fit.

Since then, Wood has been the first in line to the throne - or, to those who could not bring themselves to give Robshaw an even break, the “king over the water” - while establishing himself as the conscience of the team. When virtually everyone else, including Robshaw, could be heard reading from a script and dodging awkward questions with Jason Robinson-like footwork, Wood was happy to tell it straight.

It was almost as if Lancaster trusted him, and him alone, to articulate the thoughts of the team as a whole.

The first-choice No 6 at the World Cup - a tournament in which he performed as well as any member of England's half-baked pack - and blessed with great strength of character, he has a decent chance of starting against Scotland. In which case, he would be just the man for a short-term shouldering of the burden.

Joe Launchbury (Wasps)

The current favourite for the captaincy has precious little experience in the leadership field and has suffered a wretched time on the injury front: he underwent neck surgery this time last year, looked short of a gallop during the World Cup (irrespective of a fine performance in adversity against the Wallabies) and is now suffering from a hamstring problem that threatens his participation in the pre-Christmas rounds of the European Champions Cup.

Of the candidates drawn from the existing squad, he looks the most like a long-term starting option for Jones. The new coach may not see the game the way Lancaster saw it, but he knows a multi-tasking, highly skilled, thoroughly modern lock when he sees one - after all, he worked with the great John Eales back in Australia - and will recognise Launchbury's limitless potential. But Joe the captain? He may be too polite, too bashful, too much of a Trappist.

Martin Johnson was a strong, silent type…but there was a darkness about him that rendered words superfluous. Launchbury is not in that league. Not yet, at any rate.

Mike Brown (Harlequins)

Another man seen at the top of the bookies' blackboards just recently, the full-back is the polar opposite to Launchbury in that he plays his rugby in a rage. He too had his moments during the World Cup and his frequent mentions in dispatches on the captaincy front are a reflection of the fact that unlike a clear majority of his countrymen, he did little to blot his copybook.

He made himself even more popular among the red-rose cognoscenti by criticising those of his fellow players who, keen to pin the blame for England's global pratfall on anyone and everyone but themselves, failed to keep their mouths shut in the aftermath. Brown openly stated that he no longer knew whom he could trust - and won the trust of all right-thinking rugby folk as a result.

But with Alex Goode of Saracens playing some sublime stuff at Premiership and European levels and Anthony Watson of Bath indicating that he might be even more effective as a full-back than he is as a wing, the Harlequin has work to do if he is to hold on to his place. All things considered, the odds against him landing the captaincy are longer than they appear at present.

Ben Youngs (Leicester)

The scrum-half has a good deal of captaincy experience at club level and there were times last season when he delivered the kind of performances that elevated him above dozens of common or garden No 9s ahead of the last British and Irish Lions tour in 2013.

His problem is consistency - on a bad day, his entire skill set goes missing - and he faces stiff competition from Joe Simpson of Wasps, the form half-back in the country and one of the players of the domestic season to date.

If the new coach picks on the evidence before his eyes, rather than on the basis of received wisdom and reputation, Youngs cannot be certain of making the cut for the Calcutta Cup game in two months' time.

Jones is not against asking a No 9 to run the show - during his time as Wallaby coach, he handed the responsibility to George Gregan against the wishes of a majority of the Australian rugby public, and he was proved correct - but while Youngs once threatened to be a scrum-half of Gregan's stature, it has not quite worked out that way.


TOM WOOD (AGE: 29, CAPS: 42)



BEN YOUNGS (AGE: 26, CAPS: 52) – The Independent

Original source: Captaincy conundrum for Jones