Eddie Jones has confirmed Dylan Hartley will captain England in the Six Nations providing he proves his fitness in time.
England are due to hold a final training camp in Portugal starting on January 22. Jones has given Hartley some strict fitness criteria to meet when the squad reconvene if he wants to captain his country after serving a six-week ban for a reckless tackle.
Jones will have to start the tournament without five of his first-choice forwards as the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, locks George Kruis and Joe Launchbury and flanker Chris Robshaw, are set to miss at least the opening game against France on February 4.
"Dylan has got to come to Portugal fit and ready to go," said Jones.
"He’s doing all the right things at the moment and if he keeps on doing that, there’s no reason why he won’t be starting hooker and captain.
"He has got to be one of the fittest players. He is on a stringent fitness programme now. He ate turkey and broccoli for Christmas dinner. He has to watch his diet."
Jones has sat down with Hartley to remind him of his responsibilities, as a player and as a leader.
"We’ve had many chats and no one is more disappointed than he is," said Jones.
"He is a proud Northampton player and he wants to captain England. That’s the first mistake he has made for us. Dylan made a judgment error. He went to hit the bloke hard, he wanted to stop the ball, the player’s height changed and he had a loose arm. I see that as his first mistake, so there is no reason why that changes anything."
Jones will be on edge over the next week few weeks as the Premiership, PRO12 and Champions Cup carry on, which has the potential to add to England's injury woes.
"You wake up every day and hope someone else doesn’t get injured," said Jones.
"Maro (Itoje) at six is something we will definitely look at. He has a pretty good engine on him, is reasonably athletic and is a good one-on-one tackler, which is essential at number six."