O Captain! My Captain?
January 12, 2012
Will England hooker Dylan Hartley be handed the honour of leading his country against Scotland at Murrayfield? © Getty Images
The announcement of a new-look squad ended much of the speculation surrounding England ahead of their defence of the Six Nations crown but one major question remains unanswered - who will lead them into battle?
Interim coach Stuart Lancaster has chosen not to name his skipper in the hope that one will emerge from their pre-Six Nations training camp but made a point of revealing that hooker Dylan Hartley, flanker Tom Wood, fly-half Toby Flood, scrum-half Ben Youngs and back-row Chris Robshaw were all expected to form part of a "leadership group".
Stripped of a host of veterans, the squad latest squad is significantly lighter on experience than that which competed for the Rugby World Cup crown with the 26-year-old Flood the most decorated player with 46 Test caps. However, with their first-choice playmaker sidelined through injury and the more experienced hands of fly-half Charlie Hodgson and hooker Lee Mears seemingly destined for supporting roles, England are set to rely on a relatively green skipper for their opening Six Nations date with Scotland at Murrayfield on February 4.
Of the other leading contenders to take on the honour, the 25-year-old Hartley leads the way with 34 Test caps and having seen his more experienced rival Steve Thompson retire in the wake of the World Cup, he can fully expect to lay claim to the No.2 shirt. The fact that he has led Northampton for some time will also weigh heavily in his favour and may give him the edge over club-mate Wood, 25, who is another clear front-runner despite not having reached double figures in terms of Test caps - although injury may yet rule him out of the equation altogether.
Robshaw, 25, is another with limited Test experience having just one cap to his name and may yet face a fight to secure a place in the starting line-up and while the 22-year-old Youngs boasts 17 Test appearances he may be asked to focus on sparking an untried backs division into life.
In order to provide a comparison, a 26-year-old Richie McCaw had 36 caps when he took on the All Blacks captaincy while a 28-year-old Martin Johnson had won 42 caps and also led the Lions before he took on the honour of leading England. Should England fans be concerned by a lack of Test match miles among those tipped to lead their title challenge? ESPNscrum's resident historian John Griffiths offers some hope to those a little alarmed.
"There have been four England players who were named captain on their Test debut," said Griffiths. "Fred Stokes (1871), Fred Alderson (1891), Joe Mycock (1947) and Nigel Melville (1984). But Stokes and Mycock are "tricks" really as Stokes was captain of the first-ever team, while Mycock led at Cardiff in 1947 in the first official England post-war Test - there having been a gap of nearly eight years since their previous Tests. So that leaves Alderson and Melville as England's most genuine least-experienced Test skippers.
"Will Carling was named England captain within a year of making his Test debut having won just seven caps when Geoff Cooke nominated him skipper against Australia at Twickenham in 1988," added Griffiths. "And Carling remains England's youngest Test captain since 1931."
Looking at the current crop, Griffiths added, "Tom Wood has won nine caps since February 2011 so is pretty close in experience to Carling. Robshaw has played just the once for England at Test level: in Argentina in 2009 when the bulk of the side were with the Lions in SA."
Having tracked the ascent of McCaw and fellow Rugby World Cup winner, former Springboks coach John Smit, he explained, "McCaw's first Test as captain was his 25th Test - three years after his debut - although it wasn't until after Tana Umaga's retirement in 2005 that he became regular skipper.
"John Smit made his Test debut in 2000 but it wasn't until the 2003 World Cup (against Georgia) that he deputised for Corne Krige and Joost van der Westhuizen as skipper, in his 24th Test. He did not become the regular captain until 2004."
However, Griffiths' favourite 'captain' is former Wales international Clive Rowlands. "He led the side on his Test debut against England at Cardiff in 1963 and his entire Test career (14 caps) was as Wales captain, culminating in a Triple Crown in 1965."
*Also has three caps for the British & Irish Lions
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.