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England’s hooker logjam

Hookers' conference: Dylan Hartley talks to Luke Cowan-Dickie at Suncorp Stadium in June (Pic: Getty) Rugby World

It's a nice headache for Eddie Jones but still a headache – which of England's strong pool of hookers to put on the fast track to Japan 2019?

Nov 2, 2016 12:25 PM EDT

Who’s got the Paracetamol? As Eddie Jones today names his latest EPS, a logjam is developing in the very position that England’s coach once graced for Randwick and NSW – hooker.

Dylan Hartley, as England’s so-far invincible captain and favourite to lead the 2017 Lions, is pretty much immovable and it would take a bold or foolish man not to give Jamie George the replacement’s shirt, after his prolonged excellence for Saracens. These two are the incumbents and everything’s been going swimmingly.

The snag is that England will require three hookers for their 2019 World Cup squad and the third-choice man needs Test-match exposure – preferably not just in a warm-up shortly before boarding the plane for Japan.

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Currently there are three standout candidates in Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tommy Taylor and, the long shot, Tom Youngs. All have been capped in the past year, although Youngs’s last Test was at the World Cup during the Stuart Lancaster era.

It’s easy to forget that Youngs, the new Leicester captain, played throughout the last Lions Test series, starting twice, but after being surprisingly dumped at the start of Jones’s reign he has responded in champion fashion.

Growling presence: Tom Youngs is playing well but still failing to convince Eddie Jones (Pic: Getty) Rugby World

Richard Cockerill, his director of rugby and a former international hooker himself, is not a man to dish out plaudits lightly and he rated Youngs “the best hooker in England by a country mile” last season, praising his attitude and work-rate.

At 29, Youngs is older than all but Hartley in the list of contenders but his 31 caps gives him a nudge-up on others because he has experienced the full heat of Test rugby over several years and survived to tell the tale.

Yet his exclusion from the Elite Player Squad announced today suggests he will only get a look-in if others stall. And it is Taylor, who will be 25 the day before England face South Africa in November, who’s in the box seat having been asked to attend the upcoming training camp in Brighton. He was signed by Wasps for his dynamic physicality and he’s the best tackler of the whole bunch, both in terms of quantity and accuracy.

It helps to play in a club team of such skill and ambition, of course, but Taylor is one reason for Wasps’ success, and it says much that he’s able to keep bruising ball-carrier Ashley Johnson on the bench.

Touch of class: Tommy Taylor, yet to miss a tackle this season, scores for Wasps against Bristol Rugby World

Capped against Wales last May and part of the Saxons side that won 2-0 in South Africa, Taylor has three caps fewer than Cowan-Dickie, the 23-year-old notching up the tries for Exeter Chiefs.

For a long time, Cowan-Dickie’s Achilles heel was his lineout throwing, an absolute ‘non-negotiable’ in the hooker’s armoury and perhaps Hartley’s greatest strength.

This is no surprise because the Cornishman came late to the party. As recently as 2013 he was playing loosehead prop for England U20 (as well as hooker), and he has had to be patient whilst learning his art. But his near-perfect lineout stats this season suggest the throwing gremlins are being suppressed and, interestingly, he has become a major carrier for the Chiefs, with only Thomas Waldrom used more.

Workhorse: Luke Cowan-Dickie is a key carrier for Exeter and is throwing with accuracy (Pic: Getty) Rugby World

Rob Baxter, his boss at Sandy Park, is not shy at pushing his case. “He’s bang on form and I think he’ll give Eddie Jones a few difficult selection issues,” he says. “It’ll be great to see him carry on that form in the autumn Internationals.” He may have to wait for his chance.

Five top hookers and we haven’t even discussed Jack Walker, yet to appear for new club Bath after an injury in pre-season, or Harry Thacker, last season’s meteorite now struggling for game time at Leicester because of Youngs and George McGuigan, another Saxons tourist. Sale’s Cameron Neild, part hooker, part back-row, is another to watch.

For now, Taylor is in pole position and Jones’s task will be to accelerate his development without losing sight of the main aim: to win each Test match in front of him.

This weekend Argentina face New Zealand in the Rugby Championship and on view will be arguably the world’s best two hookers in Agustin Creevy, the dogged scrummager with a knack of winning breakdown turnovers, and Dane Coles, the speedy All Black who throws 20-metre scoring passes for fun.

Same position, different styles. And that’s the headache Eddie Jones is facing when it comes to narrowing down his options at hooker.

Understudy: Jamie George, here scoring for Saracens v Saints, is England's reserve choice (Pic: Getty) Rugby World

England’s 45-man Elite Player Squad

Forwards
Josh Beaumont (Sale), Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Dan Cole (Leicester), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), Will Evans (Leicester), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Northampton), James Haskell (Wasps), Paul Hill (Northampton), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Sam Jones (Wasps), George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Tommy Taylor (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Mike Williams (Leicester).

Backs
Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath), Alex Goode (Saracens), Mike Haley (Sale), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Alex Lozowski (Saracens), Joe Marchant (Harlequins), Jonny May (Gloucester), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Dan Robson (Wasps), Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath), Henry Slade (Exeter), Ben Spencer (Saracens), Ben Te’o (Worcester), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), Anthony Watson (Bath), Ben Youngs (Leicester).

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