Hartley 'will be ready to lead English Six Nations bid'
England head coach Eddie Jones has backed his captain Dylan Hartley to be ready for the Six Nations opener in two weeks' time. The Northampton man has not played since early December thanks to a ban for striking Leinster's Sean O'Brien in a Champions Cup clash.
With places on this summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand to be earned in the coming weeks, there has been added intrigue surrounding Hartley's match fitness following the suspension that took his career tally to 60 weeks.
Of more immediate concern to Jones is the lack of leaders in his panel ready to step up in Hartley's possible absence.
"There's not many," he said of his captaincy options.
"That's one of our great keys going forward.
"Apart from working on the fundamental skills and increasing the depth of the squad, one thing we need to do is increase the leadership density of the team.
"That's a big project going forward."
He does, however, expect Hartley to be ready for the clash with France on February 4.
"Dylan Hartley is moving in the right direction," he insisted.
"In the autumn we would have given him five out of 10 in terms of being ready to play, and now he's about a seven out of 10.
"Given that he has a good couple of days of training in our camp in Portugal, I'd anticipate him being in the reckoning for the first Test team.
"I'll have a look at him on Monday and Tuesday."
While Hartley's case to tour with, or even captain, the Lions is likely to be a hot topic during England's title defence - Ulster's Ireland skipper Rory Best is also in the race to skipper the side - Jones has warned his entire squad not to be distracted by Warren Gatland's looming selection.
"If you read anything in the media at the moment, players are talking about the Lions, they're always asked about the Lions," Jones said.
"The Lions tour is always a massive attraction but also can be a massive distraction in terms of players focusing on the future rather than focusing on what's going on at the moment.
"We've got a lot of distractions in front of us and part of our job is to make sure that we get the focus right and that's beating France.
"Our aim is to win the Six Nations, we're not trying to hide that but to do that we'll have to prepare for each game very well."
The former Australia and Japan coach has called three uncapped players into his squad for the upcoming Championship, with England out to win back-to-back titles for the first time since 2001.
Back-row Mike Williams, prop Nathan Catt and Saracens back Alex Lozowski are all among the 34-man panel that will assemble at Pennyhill Park next week ahead of a week of warm weather training in Portugal.
"I've been impressed with the three uncapped players named in the squad," Jones said.
"They're all guys who have great physical capabilities and they all have a desire to improve. With a number of injuries to some key players, it's a great opportunity for them.
"It's good to welcome back a number of players who weren't with us during the autumn.
"This time last year I said that the long-term strategy for England is to develop a side who can be the most dominant team in world rugby. Obviously I've been pleased with how the team's progressing, but there's still plenty to improve on."
England's first challenge comes from a France side that has not won the title since 2010, with their last top-half finish coming only one year later.
Jones, however, expects something of a revival in the second season of Guy Noves' reign.
"France are really starting to get their game together, they should have beaten Australia and certainly took New Zealand right to the wire," he said.
"If you look at the squad they've picked, they are full of talent. Noves has got the team going in the right direction.
"I failed high school French, so I won't try to use too much but they've got the joie de vivre back in their game. They've picked a big, physical team, they've got exceptionally gifted back-rowers and that bit of bite on the wing."