Lions set to snub Dylan Hartley for New Zealand tour
Forget about Dylan Hartley captaining the British and Irish Lions to New Zealand, the England hooker will be lucky just to make the squad.
That seems to be the sentiment coming out of the UK after the Six Nations wrapped up at the weekend with increasing competition for the No 2 jersey coming from England understudy Jamie George, Ireland's Rory Best and Wales' Ken Owens.
Kiwi-born Hartley led England to consecutive titles, but endless concerns over his discipline have now been replaced by huge question marks over his form and subsequent Lions claims.
Lions coach Warren Gatland names his touring squad on April 19, but has revealed the uncertainty over Hartley in an interview with The Times.
"Dylan's done a really good job but he knows he's under pressure from Jamie George, and a lot of people rate Jamie highly," Gatland told The Times.
"There's also Rory Best who's done well with Ireland, Ken Owens had a good Six Nations - there's a fair bit of competition about the captaincy and also the hooker position. If I was going to pick a test team tomorrow you want to be picking a captain who you're reasonably confident will be in the test team. That's one of the criteria, it's not a guarantee but it is a criteria."
Hartley rarely sees out the final whistle with England coach Eddie Jones regularly subbing him early in the second half of tests - hardly an endorsement for higher honours.
Gatland indicated Sam Warburton, his 2013 Lions skipper on the successful tour of Australia, wasn't out of contention despite giving up the Wales captaincy to Alun Jones this season.
"He's a different captain to other players, he leads by example, doesn't say a lot and he's had that experience and he's in contention, definitely," Gatland told the BBC.
The pressure on Hartley has intensified following the shock 13-9 loss to Ireland at the weekend, a result that denied England consecutive Grand Slams and a chance to snatch the world record run of consecutive tier one test wins from the All Blacks.
In a separate story in The Times headlined "England's winning streak has ended: so should the Hartley era", respected rugby correspondent Owen Slot suggested there were better hooking and captaincy options for England moving forward.
"For England to continue to improve, it is now the time to start picking their best hookers. Hartley's own performances did rise in the last two rounds of the championship, but Jamie George has proved enough times that he can match Hartley's reliability at the set piece and trump any contribution he brings in the loose," Slot wrote.
Slot noted that Hartley was regularly subbed and there was a ready-made captaincy alternative in the form of Owen Farrell.
"Owen Farrell is its standard-bearer and is ably equipped to step in as England's next captain. Hartley has not been lasting much beyond the 50-minute mark throughout the Six Nations; the comebacks against France, Wales and Italy were all executed after he had left the field, with Farrell as the captain."
Hartley missed the Lions tour of Australia in 2013 when he was banned for 11 weeks for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes in an English Premiership match.