By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - The official line is that Dylan Hartley has been omitted from England's Six Nations squad due to injury but the fact that he is also absent from next week's training camp, having already lost his starting berth, suggests it might be a tough road back.
Three caps short of a century, the hooker is a man who has enjoyed the unswerving support of coach Eddie Jones, who overlooked his poor disciplinary record to install him as his first captain at the start of 2016.
Jones has since backed him at just about every opportunity, raving about his leadership and impact away from the pitch and the things he does that "you guys (the media) don't see".
In 2017 Jamie George was considered the best hooker in Britain and Ireland, starting all three Lions tests in New Zealand, but when he returned to the England camp that November he was back in his usual place on the bench behind Hartley.
That was the way it stayed, until the cracks in the edifice began to appear last November. First Hartley was joined as "co-captain" by Owen Farrell and then, in the last game of the series, George was given the number two shirt in what Jones considered his strongest team, to play Australia.
George is likely to retain it when England begin their Six Nations campaign in Ireland on Feb. 2, with Luke Cowan-Dickie supporting from the bench.
Hartley has not played for his club Northampton since before Christmas due to a "grumbly knee" caused by wear and tear and Jones said the earliest he might be back in consideration is England's third game, against Wales on Feb. 23, and even that is an "outside chance".
He said next week's training camp in Portugal was particularly focused on the Ireland match, which was why Hartley and others on the comeback trail will stay at home.
Far from writing him off, however, Jones even suggested that Hartley could go straight back into the team later in the championship without playing a club game for what would be approaching three months.
"It’s just a matter of how fit he is. Now, with GPS, you can tell how fit a player is by their training, so we just have to have a look at him," the Australian told reporters on Thursday.
"He might eventually need an operation to clean it up, but at this stage they're doing what they call passive rehab and we’re confident that he should be fit to play in the Six Nations."
Jones has long admired Hartley for his authority, while highlighting the relative lack of other leaders among his squad, but the return from injury of several experienced players, and with Farrell getting more captaincy outings under his belt, that aspect of his involvement is appearing less crucial.
"I think we’ve got a growing density of leadership within the team," Jones said. "We’ve got guys like Mako and Billy (Vunipola) and Joe Launchbury to come back into the squad and they're all good, solid citizens with good values who will help in that area."
He also felt that Farrell was developing in the role - while accepting he might need to dial back a little on his "dialogue" with referees.
"It is a natural cycle for a captain," he said of the flyhalf/centre, whose father Andy captained Wigan and Britain's rugby league sides as a 21-year-old.
"You start off captaining the side like you’re a player, then you learn that within the team everyone is different, and you start learning techniques, different ways of developing relationships with players and referees. It is just an ongoing process.
"Owen is maturing at a good rate and he is capable of captaining the side by himself, but he will need assistance from the senior players, like any good captain does."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)