England coach Stuart Lancaster has revealed that Saints skipper Dylan Hartley could be named as England captain for the QBE autumn international series.
Hartley was a stand-in skipper for England’s third Test of the summer series in South Africa after Chris Robshaw, who was captain for the Six Nations as well as the first two Tests of the tour, was forced to pull out injured.
And Lancaster has admitted that he has yet to decided on his skipper for the forthcoming season, and that Hartley is at the forefront of his mind, along with Robshaw and Hartley’s fellow Saint Tom Wood.
Lancaster will delay any decision over the captaincy until his squad arrive in camp at the end of October to begin preparations for the four-Test series.
England open their autumn campaign against Fiji on November 10 before tackling Australia, South Africa and world champions New Zealand on successive Saturdays at Twickenham.
Fitness permitting, Robshaw will be in a strong position to retain the captaincy after playing an integral role in establishing a new era for the England team following the 2011 World Cup debacle.
Robshaw’s leadership through the RBS 6 Nations - including a landmark win over France in Paris - and the summer tour has seen him touted by Warren Gatland as a potential British and Irish Lions captain.
But Lancaster was also impressed with the Dylan Hartley captained England to a 14-14 draw with South Africa in Port Elizabeth, when Robshaw was absent with a broken thumb.
England also have Wood back in the frame. The Northampton flanker had been Robshaw’s main rival for the England captaincy before he was sidelined by a foot injury in January.
“We haven’t decided on the captain yet,” Lancaster said. “We’ll sit down when we meet in camp, we’ll look at who’s available, form and fitness obviously.
“Clearly Chris has done a fantastic job. There’s no reason why he wouldn’t be strongly considered for the autumn.
“But Chris could get injured as he was for the third Test when Dylan stepped up. So it’s too early to say ‘This guy is going to be captain’.”
Lancaster subscribes to the theory that the team must be selected before the captain and he has worked hard to develop a senior leadership group to run the team.
That leadership group has lost Ben Foden for the autumn campaign after the Saints full-back underwent ankle ligament surgery, but it features the likes of Hartley, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs and another Saints player in Phil Dowson.
“I wouldn’t say the captaincy is overplayed, being England captain is a big job obviously, but a strong leadership group surrounding the captain is equally important,” Lancaster said.
“Also the decision-makers that support the captain. If you’ve got a fantastic captain but you haven’t got someone who can run the game from 10 or run a line-out, you can forget it.
“The plan, when we do name the captain, is ideally to name him for the autumn internationals.
“We named Chris for the South Africa tour but lost him for the last Test so we’ve got to be able to change and adapt as we go.
“Dylan taking over as captain was an example of the seamless transition from one leader to another.
“And if you look at the performance of the third Test, while Chris was missed on the field, Dylan did a fantastic job captaining the side.
“We got a performance out of the team in what was a challenging situation to make sure we finished the tour strongly, on the back of a long hard season for English rugby.
“That was credit to Dylan and also the rest of the players who played in that team.”