In his own words Dylan Hartley admitted he had thought he had played his last game for England.
But that said, his appointment as England captain on Monday was rugby union’s worst-kept secret (in terms of ones we can print without threat of legal ramifications).
That alone emphasises the sheer dearth in leadership in English rugby at the top level. Had Stuart Lancaster kept his job for another 2-3 years, conceivably Hartley’s England career would have ended at 66 caps.
Now, he’s first name on the teamsheet and set to be a mainstay of the side in Eddie Jones’ new era.
The question surrounding Hartley isn’t necessarily whether he’s the right man for the job – time will tell and, let’s be honest, the only other realistic option was to retain Chris Robshaw as skipper and that was never going to happen – it’s for how long?
He turns 30 in March and has been playing professional rugby for 10 years, with niggling injuries starting to creep in and in one of the most physically-demanding positions on the pitch.
Given the length of his contract, Jones has four years to turn around the fortunes of the Red Rose by the time World Cup 2019 comes around. Assuming the Australian is still at the helm, Hartley will be 33.
As controversial and debatable an appointment it was, taking all that into consideration, it doesn’t appear one for the long-term.
Because surely the plan among all this is that by the 2018 Six Nations – when World Cup preparations begin in earnest – Maro Itoje will be 23 with 10-15 caps, Matt Kvesic and Josh Beaumont in their mid-20s, while Jamie George – whose gametime admittedly may be hindered by Hartley’s automatic selection – 27 and at his peak.
This new generation of English talent, theoretically, should be in a position of being international regulars with sufficient experience also at domestic level.
Handing the role of leader to Itoje or George, probably the two most likely successors to Hartley, now could end their international careers before they’ve even started.
There is a generational gap and a leadership void Jones has to fill, and that can only be done through time and hard yards on the training ground and in match situations.
International captains aren’t made, they’re grown and developed. Richie McCaw was 25 when he took over from Tana Umaga and had 36 caps to fall back on, Francois Pienaar 26 and Martin Johnson 29 with six years of international experience in his locker.
Hartley is the common sense appointment for 2016, or maybe the best of a bad bunch, assuming he keeps himself out of trouble.
The real debate will be in 2-3 years time when Jones’ options should improve dramatically.
Leinster have plan for Irish revival
The European Champions Cup pool stage drew to a close on Sunday with four fascinating quarterfinal line-ups revealed.
That is, if you’re a fan of English or French club rugby.
But while the inquest into how the Ospreys left their chance of a place in the last eight slip, the major absence from the knockout stages was that of the three Irish provinces: Ulster, Munster and Leinster.
In the days of the Heineken Cup you could count on at least one of the Irish heavyweights making the semi-finals but with the exception of Ulster, who missed out by virtue of one point, the other two never came close.
True, Leinster were undone by the tournament’s toughest group but Munster have failed to click all season in the Pro12 and their absence is no great surprise.
The reasons are far and wide: World Cup burnout, losing talent to England and France to injuries. The increased salary cap in the Premiership and the glamour and wealth of the Top 14 are major temptations for Ireland’s best and it has led to a major lack of strength in depth. If their internationals aren’t firing, those around them simply aren’t up to standard.
Financially the trio just can’t compete but Leinster may have shown the way as they have fielded a number of academy prospects of late.
The rebuild won’t happen overnight but to be relevant once again in the future, Ulster and Munster must follow Leinster’s lead.
English clubs can finally end wait for European glory
After the final round of European Champions Cup matches this weekend it was confirmed that English clubs will occupy five out of eight berths in the knock-out stages, and their best chance of producing a winner for years.
The most romantic route to the playoffs was that of Exeter Chiefs, who started the day third in Pool 2 but scored a four-try bonus point (and crucially denied their opposition a losing bonus point) which took Ospreys from top of the group to third.
English-qualified duo James Short and No.8 Thomas Waldrom have been pivotal for the west-countrymen and their form in the tournament will not have gone unnoticed by Eddie Jones.
England’s best hopes though remain with Saracens, who have now added a razor-shape attack to their watertight defence.
Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Northampton Saints make up the quintet and will all be quietly confident, given that an all-French powerhouse quarter will see one of Racing or Toulon eliminated.
All the pressure on Sonny Bill to perform
A debut in his fourth professional sport, for the most successful rugby sevens team ever, in front of an expectant home crowd.
Sonny Bill Williams could not have more pressure on him after being announced as the only new cap in Sir Gordon Tietjens’ 12-strong squad for the Wellington Sevens this weekend.
But if there is one man that thrives under these situations, it’s Sonny Bill. With one NRL title, two World Cup winner’s medals in union and unbeaten heavyweight boxing record from six bouts, there is no reason to believe that SBW won’t be able to add a sevens gold medal to his cabinet this time next week.
It is notoriously hard break into Teitjens’s coveted sevens teams due to the talent at his disposal, but with a strong squad selected including Ardie Savea, this could be one of their most exciting yet.
As well as helping NZ to break into the top three of this year’s competition, the opportunity to be selected for New Zealand’s Olympic sevens team in Rio will be at the forefront of Williams’s mind when he takes to the field.
Oyonnax feel the Payne train
While Ulster ultimately came up short in their bid to make the last eight of the European Champions Cup, full-back Jared Payne gave the home fans plenty to cheer this weekend with a superb performance.
The New Zealand-born, Irish international combined dazzling footwork with mature game management to keep turning the French defence around and capped his afternoon’s work with a well-deserved try.
In this form Joe Schmidt must be seriously considering the Ulsterman for the full-back jersey in the Six Nations, having originally played at 12 for the national side.
With incumbent full-back Rob Kearney suffering from some indifferent form in a Leinster side that has been on the wrong side of some bad losses this season, Payne may just be the man to spark Ireland into life against Wales.
Abu Dhabi hit form in time for monster UAE clash
There would appear to be a bit of a hangover from last season’s West Asia Championship victory for Abu Dhabi Saracens, but the men from the capital have finally got their season up and running.
Sarries recorded a resounding 53-17 win against newcomers Al Ain Amblers, but will need other results to go their way if they are to progress, following back-to-back defeats to a much-improved Bahrain and old foes Doha in the opening two rounds.
For neutral fans the Al Ghaza’s team’s improved form is a welcome sign as they prepare for a daunting away trip to one of this year’s form teams, Dubai Exiles.
“I hope the win will give the boys bit more motivation to keep training and keep going,” said Sarries skipper Jaen Botes. “There are some areas we can still improve on and we just need to keep working hard the results will start to come.”
Next generation of Dubai Exiles have what it takes
While the Exiles’ senior men’s team are reaping the rewards of significant investment into their team over the past few seasons, the Dubai team are have taken strides towards building a legacy for the future.
After seeing Exiles beat Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the final of the Under-16’s A competition at the HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai on Saturday, head coach Jaques Benade believes the kids are more than a little alright.
In his playing days Benade was only prevented from gaining full Springbok honours by the likes of Joel Stransky, Jannie de Beer and Henry Honiball, but it’s easy to forget that the South African’s role at the UAE’s most famous domestic club is far more diverse.
“These U-16’s are a very talented group and the coaches are working very hard with them so it’s nice to come in and help if they need it,” Benade said following Exiles comprehensive 19-0 triumph.
“That’s the future for the club. Some of those boys will go away to university but hopefully they’ll come back and play, that’s the main idea.”
This week’s video highlight comes from Ulster against Oyonnax in the European Champions Cup. We have gone old-school here and this bone-shuddering hit is not for the faint-hearted. The perpetrator of this totally legal hit is rugby league convert Maurie Fa’asavalu, who uses his arms in the tackle well to make the tackle as safe as possible, while ending Ian Humphries’s participation in the match. We would have got out of there quickly as well.
Exeter boss Rob Baxter was left to reflect on “an incredible finale” after his team secured an unlikely place in this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The Chiefs’ 33-17 bonus point victory over Ospreys at Sandy Park saw them through on points difference after both teams and French challengers Bordeaux-Begles all finished level in Pool Two.
The three-way tie on 16 points was separated under tournament rules by results of games between the three clubs, with Exeter and Bordeaux, who were surprise 37-28 conquerors of Clermont Auvergne yesterday, then still tied, which meant points difference being utilised and ultimately working in Chiefs’ favour.
Exe ran in five tries – two each from outstanding wing James Short and number eight Thomas Waldrom, plus a Don Armand touchdown – to triumph, with Gareth Steenson adding three conversions and Will Hooley one.
Debut Champions Cup quarter-finalists Exeter will be joined in the last eight by Saracens, Leicester, Racing 92, Wasps, Toulon, Stade Francais and Northampton. The Ospreys, though, crashed out after scoring an early Hanno Dirksen try and claiming a late penalty try, while Dan Biggar kicked seven points, and Wales’ wait for a top-flight European quarter-finalist – they last achieved it in 2012 – goes on.
Baxter said: “I am obviously delighted, but delighted more for the players than anything else. “Qualifying out of this pool today was very unlikely. We talked about the character we wanted to show and what we wanted to take out of the game. We didn’t expect to be winning the pool, but the players put in a fantastic shift and got a real tangible reward for it.
“We knew the score was staying pretty close between Clermont and Bordeaux, and it all started getting really confusing. We didn’t know if we needed to kick the ball off the pitch at the end or score another try. It has been an incredible finale to the weekend. It is always nice when hard work gets rewarded, and I think that is what we have seen.”
Exeter will now visit Wasps at the last-eight stage in early April, and Baxter added: “We don’t need to worry about Europe now. It’s a long way away, and that is fantastic because it gives us a chance to thicken out our squad with players returning from injury. We will enjoy it tonight, and then it is back to business with the Aviva Premiership.”
Meanwhile, Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill is delighted to have home advantage when his side meet Stade Francais again in the European Champions Cup. Stade claimed a 36-21 bonus point win at home to Tigers, setting up a knockout-stage clash in April.
“We’ll be happy to be at home because historically that gives you the best chance of going further and we’ll have a warm welcome for them,” Cockerill said. “It will be a great occasion.”