Dylan Hartley insists that the prospect of leading the British and Irish Lions is not playing on his mind after a superb first half of 2016 in the international arena. The fiery Northampton Saints hooker was a controversial choice to replace Chris Robshaw as England captain ahead of Eddie Jones' first Six Nations campaign since succeeding Stuart Lancaster last November, but he quickly silenced his critics by guiding the World Cup flops to a first grand slam title for 13 years.
Hartley, who spent seven weeks out after sustaining his second concussion of the season in the final victory over France, retained that role for the summer tour down under, where the hugely impressive tourists secured their first ever series win in Australia and inflicted the Wallabies' only home whitewash since 1971.
Such impressive leadership has seen the Rotorua-born 30-year-old featured alongside Alun Wyn Jones and previous incumbent Sam Warburton as the bookmakers' favourites to skipper the Lions on their eagerly-anticipated three-test series with the mighty All Blacks next June/July.
However, for now he insists that his focus remains on continuing to impress with England and Northampton ahead of autumn international tests against South Africa, whom the hosts have not beaten in a decade, Fiji, Argentina and Australia.
"Most players are conscious of that [going into a Lions year]," Hartley told reporters at Twickenham following the unveiling of England's new 2016/17 home kit by Canterbury. "I haven't thought about it until now but obviously being back in New Zealand on holiday, they are hugely excited about it so I was made aware that it was happening. But look, break it down... how do you get to the Lions? You play well for your country. How do you play for your country? You play well for your club. How do you play well for your club? You train hard in pre-season, which is now, and you start the season well.
"For me, it's all about Northampton, playing well and making sure I hold my hand up, Eddie sees me and come November, I'm in good form and ready to play for England. That's just the bonus at the end of a good season for a player I'm sure."
When asked about how he felt regarding his name featuring heavily in discussions for the captaincy, he added: "I'm also aware of that, but look, for me, again I've always said it, I'm only judged on my next game for England. So for South Africa, I need to make sure I'm in that England team. I need to make sure I'm the form hooker. I need to make sure I'm there or thereabouts and I'm sure Eddie will look at captaincy then.
"It's not something I set out to ever achieve. I'm just happy where I am at the moment with my focus on this job. Like I said, that's another job if it may come at the end of the season. Right now, all of my focus is on my club and then obviously country."
Hartley was initially selected for the memorable 2013 Lions tour to Australia, where Warren Gatland's side produced a ruthless second-half performance in a Sydney decider to end their 16-year wait for a series triumph. However, he eventually missed the trip entirely and was replaced by Ireland's Rory Best after being banned for 11 weeks for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes during an Aviva Premiership final defeat to Leicester.
It is yet to be officially confirmed who will coach the Lions in New Zealand, with tour manager John Spencer previously confirming that an interview process would be conducted involving three candidates and a formal announcement made in September. Gatland, who was also an assistant on the 2009 trip to South Africa, remains the front-runner after Jones insisted that he was "completely unavailable". Ireland's Joe Schmidt and Scotland chief Vern Cotter are the other alternatives.
Dylan Hartley was appearing alongside his England team mates at the launch of the new England Rugby shirt from Canterbury #CommittedToTheGame. Visit Canterbury.com