The man sitting behind me on the train was adamant. “If it happens, ” he was loudly informing the person at the other end of the phone line, “it will be the most scandalous thing to happen in British sport in history. And I mean ever.”
It was hard at that point not to eavesdrop (actually, at the volume he was addressing the carriage, only industrial quality ear guards would have prevented intrusion). And it quickly became clear he was not talking about the impending sacking of Jose Mourinho, or the latest scandal to envelope Lord Coe, or even a tweet Tyson Fury had just sent outlining his opinion on small pets. What he was talking about was the gathering speculation that, as his first act in charge of English rugby, Eddie Jones may, perhaps, it is said,
There have been plenty of signals that rugby has come of age as a subject of national obsession. But nothing – not the triumph of the recent World Cup, not the signing of Dan Carter to Racing 92 in France, not even the universal mourning of the great Jonah Lomu – speaks of rugby’s shift into centre of the mainstream as much as a gathering row about who should be England captain. Getting shirty about who should be skipper: that identifies the precise moment rugby parked its tanks on football’s lawn.
In rugby’s not too distant past, England captains were largely appointed by rote. An officer class chap was identified, usually with a university pedigree, and everything else fell into line. There was no analysis of what his selection meant or the signal it was sending out to the wider world. Nobody fretted about his character or personal habits (just as well in some cases). He was appointed and then did the job. And if he wasn’t any good, well, the system was quietly cranked up again to find a replacement. Rows about who should get the job were left to the undignified round ball lot.
It is not like that now. Even to be suggested for the role is to find yourself scrutinised, analysed, assessed. And in the case of Hartley, very mention of your name is enough to produce apoplexy on the 07.34 to Paddington (running 20 minutes late due to earlier signalling problems in the Didcot area).