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Dylan Hartley to remain with England rather than making Northampton return

Captain Dylan Hartley will remain with England this week, rather than be released to play for Northampton.

Hartley, still short of game time following a six-week suspension for a high tackle on Leinster's Sean O'Brien, played for 47 minutes in Saturday's defeat of Wales in Cardiff as England made it two RBS 6 Nations wins from two.

Saracens hooker Jamie George, his replacement, performed well, putting Hartley's starting position under scrutiny for the February 26 clash with Italy at Twickenham as England seek a 17th consecutive Test win.

And it had been suggested that Hartley should seek to play for Saints in Sunday's Aviva Premiership game at Newcastle to accrue valuable match fitness in a fallow Six Nations week.

However, assistant coach Paul Gustard said: "He's the captain of our team and it's important that he stays with us and trains with us."

James Haskell will also stay with the squad, rather than play for Wasps at Sale on Sunday.

Gustard felt Hartley's performance was improved on the previous week against France and lauded his captaincy role under head coach Eddie Jones.

"A lot goes through Dylan as a conduit to the team. He does it brilliantly," Gustard said.

"He has a great relationship with Eddie. That is clear to see. There is mutual respect there."

Mako Vunipola was not named in this week's 25-man training squad for a camp in central London and is expected to play 40 minutes for Saracens at Gloucester on Friday before coming into consideration.

Bath wing Anthony Watson is now fully fit and re-integrated, while Gustard allayed concerns over Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes, who required physio after tweaking his knee on Tuesday.

Hartley's Northampton team-mate Courtney Lawes continues to give Jones a selection dilemma of a different kind.

Second rows Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje started against Wales and performed well, while Saracens' George Kruis was a standout performer in 2016.

Itoje was named as blindside flanker, wearing the number six jersey, but such is his scrummaging strength that Jones deployed him at lock, with Lawes on the flank.

Lawes said: "I suppose the only difference between a lock and a six nowadays is the position in the scrum.

"I'm just here to perform to the best of my ability and do what I'm told."

And Lawes believes he is in his best form since helping Saints win the 2014 Premiership title ahead of Saracens.

"I really want to see where my potential can take me and find where that limit is," he said.

"(It is about) sustained performance. You can't be the best player in the world for a game and think you're the best player in the world."

It was a word with Jones, early in the Australian's now 15-month tenure, that gave Lawes an added impetus.

Jones wanted the defensively destructive lock to rediscover his ball-carrying ability.

"I wasn't in the place I needed to be when I first met him. And, now, hopefully (I am) getting there," Lawes added.

"Eddie pointed out that that is what he wanted me to do. I had a choice: carry on doing what I was doing and probably not play for England again, or develop my game, again - back to what it was.

"It was very good for me. I needed to push myself more and that's what he made me do.

"It's been much better for my game. It means that I don't have to rely on my defensive game to play well. I can do a lot more than that."

An ankle operation after last June's 3-0 Test series win in Australia has helped Lawes' footwork, aiding his ball carrying and enabling him to fill some of the void by the injury-enforced absences of the Vunipola brothers.

"Hopefully I can continue to develop in that department and get better still," the 27-year-old said.

Jones has hinted at changes to face Italy, but Lawes still wants to play, recognising in a competitive environment possession of the shirt is key.

He added: "You want to play, but you respect the boss man's decisions. That's the end of it."

England's attentions turned to Italy immediately after the 21-16 over Wales.

And Gustard insists there will be no complacency.

He said: "We're the one team they've not beaten in the Six Nations.

"On the back of two defeats now, of course they're going to be keen for victory but no more keen for victory than we are."

And Gustard had ominous words for England's Italian visitors, given the run of form which sees Jones' men within touching distance of New Zealand's record of 18 consecutive Test wins.

Asked to name the key component of this week's training camp, Gustard said: "In three words: we get better."


From Belfast Telegraph