Eddie Jones’ confidence in Dylan Hartley remains intact despite the England captain’s slump in form at Northampton.
Hartley has not been on the winning side at his club since September – Saints have slipped to ninth in the Aviva Premiership standings – and on his last two outings his opposite number has been named man of the match.
Former England stars Lawrence Dallaglio and Austin Healey were scathing of his performance in Saturday’s 50-21 surrender to Harlequins, but Jones believes his skipper is still indispensable.
“It’s been a tough time for him,” Jones said at the squad’s two-day training camp in Brighton.
“When you are captain of a club that is struggling, a club that has just sacked their coach, it becomes a difficult time.
“That has been reflective of his play, but very good players do compartmentalise things and he’s done that terrifically well, come in and led with effervescence, trained well – he’s been good.
“I don’t watch club rugby to assess them on how they play at clubs. I watch club rugby to assess how they are going to play at international level, which is completely different.
“Some guys can be outstanding club players and be poor at international level. Some guys can be poor club players and outstanding international players.
“Dylan’s attitude is right, his body is right and he brings something to the table that we need at the moment, which is strong leadership.”
Northampton’s interim head coach Alan Gaffney, who began his role on New Year’s Day in the wake of Jim Mallinder’s sacking, has also given the 31-year-old his full support.
“Dylan has been a figurehead here for a long, long time and has a lot of respect among the players,” Gaffney said.
“I have not spoken to Dylan since I’ve been here – he had gone into camp by the time I arrived on Sunday – but I spoke to Eddie about him and he has got the utmost respect for him. I don’t see things changing here.
“Northampton has been his club, always has been his club and his heart lies here. I don’t see any changes being made there.”
Jones’ record as England head coach stands at 22 wins from 23 Tests but he now faces probably the toughest NatWest 6 Nations of his reign due to Scotland’s improvement and the strength of Ireland.
The Australian views this year as crucial to any nation’s hopes of winning the global showpiece in Japan in 2019.
“2018 is when you win or lose a World Cup – your planning, preparation, developing a team that is tough enough, resilient enough, adaptable enough to win a World Cup,” Jones said.