Hartley closing in on a century of caps for England
But very inexperienced pack set to line up against South Africa at Twickenham
Dylan Hartley: “Test rugby is a different animal but top-flight European rugby, which those guys have been playing, is a pretty good level.” Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
Never have England prepared for a Twickenham international so far from home nor entered an autumn series with so many experienced forwards missing.
Plenty of pre-match stats will follow the team back to the UK from Portugal today but the most -eye-catching is that the England co-captain Dylan Hartley has more caps than the rest of his pack combined.
When the team-sheet is confirmed, the only seasoned red rose regulars up front will be Hartley, George Kruis and Maro Itoje, joined by a host of names either making their first home Test starts or entirely unaccustomed to this level.
The aforementioned seven forwards boast just seven previous starts between them and even the British & Irish Lions tighthead Kyle Sinckler has started just one Twickenham Test. The uncapped Mercer is 21, Curry is 20.
Less than a year out from the 2019 World Cup the absence of the Vunipola brothers, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds, among others, has created more holes than a workaholic woodpecker.
Given England also have a new defence coach in John Mitchell and are experimenting with a dual-captaincy arrangement, it is not perhaps the ideal week to be catching a plane home from an increasingly sodden Algarve within 48 hours of the Test against South Africa on Saturday.
The cunning plan is to prepare the team for the culture shocks and unfamiliar rhythms of the World Cup next year but, with the Springboks having spent the week preparing in London, the short-term benefits remain to be seen.
At least England can still call on the long-serving Hartley, back in a the starting XV for the first time in more than seven months. The 32-year-old is about to win the 94th cap of his career but insists the whole squad has taken a fresh outlook as they prepare for the first of a potential 20 Tests in the next 12 months.
“We’ve spoken about our journey over the next year and how unified we need to be, all pulling in the same direction. We want to be a different, and improved, team to what we were in South Africa in June. Unless the GPS reports on our training sessions are made up or fake news, I believe we are in fantastic condition.”
Hartley is well aware, though, that nothing will come easy for himself or his team en route to Japan.
“It’s a bit like climbing a mountain: the higher you get up it, the harder it gets. Everyone asks about trying to get to 100 games but I can honestly say I’m not counting. I’m just looking forward to the next one because you don’t know when your time is up. I’m just delighted I still have the chance to play for England.”
Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton, both available after lengthy Test absences, will echo that latter sentiment and England undoubtedly boast some tantalising backline options if they can win sufficient ball.
Some have been waiting years for Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Tuilagi to be united at 10, 12 and 13 but Eddie Jones also has Ben Te’o at his disposal and has a tight call to make between Jack Nowell and Ashton on the wing.
As for the co-captains, Hartley believes outsiders will notice scant difference.
“Owen has always been a sounding board for me and vice-versa. Now he’s just got an official title.”
The pair are already regular room-mates, although Hartley is keen not to paint too cosy a domestic picture.
“It’s not like we have two fishfinger beds next to each other. He’s in one room, I’m in the other and we’ve got a little lounge area. He sings in the shower, makes the coffee and watches football on the telly.”
When Saturday comes, though, Hartley accepts a different sort of switch will need to be flicked for England to prosper.
“It is for the likes of Owen and myself to really drive it forward. The team has been picked for a reason, because they’re performing.”
Newcomers such as Moon and others will be expected to rise to the challenge instantly.
“Test rugby is a different animal but top-flight European rugby, which those guys have been playing, is a pretty good level. I’m just going to say: ‘Do what you do for Exeter but 100 times better.’”