Love it or loathe it, Dylan Hartley is the new captain and figurehead of England Rugby for this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship. A dubious role model to lead out a team with the nation’s hopes on his shoulders, the Northampton hooker often hits the headlines more for his misdemeanours rather than his on-field achievements. Questions are being raised as to why the Kiwi-born ‘bad boy’ of English Rugby has been awarded this role and whether or not he has earned his place in the history books alongside some of the country’s most successful players.
At Wednesday’s 2016 RBS Six Nations launch, talk was still rife as to how he would handle the media, the pressure and the expectation. This was his first real opportunity to settle the score and confirm his ability as captain despite his well documented discipline issues. Nobody expected him to plead for forgiveness or ramble on with the ins and outs of his past behaviour, but simply instil some faith and confidence in supporters. However, his first time in the spotlight, on stage with fellow captains of Six Nations Championship teams, ended in an awkward exchange between himself and mediator Andrew Cotter. Following a question about talking to predecessor Chris Robshaw on the art of captaincy, Cotter asked how he tailors his leadership roles, both with Northampton and going forward with England and if he always thinks about leading by example. Hartley’s reply?
“How with everyone else [the other Captains], they get to talk about the team but we get to talk about me?”
Well, that was hardly a great start. The 29 year-old tried to salvage some light-heartedness with his response whilst the room awkwardly laughed, but there was a sense that a nerve had been hit.
An hour or so later, as he addressed a smaller group of journalists with head coach Eddie Jones and with an open floor to questions, there was hope that this would be a better opportunity for him to set the record straight. Unfortunately not. To kick things off, his response to whether it was frustrating for him to be asked the same questions was a blunt:
“Yes, as are giving the same answers. Same answer to you, lets talk about the team and how motivated we are for this first game.”
Quite right. The team is the focus, especially after the whirlwind few months that it has been through. A new head coach with a new approach to the game, a new captain, a new coaching set-up and endless criticism after a disappointing World Cup – the players have had far more worries to deal with than just being in-form and fit enough to be selected. By all means, the squad should be looking forward to and preparing for this campaign, especially heading to the fortress that is Murrayfield in just over a week to take on a tenacious Scotland side. However, there is no avoiding the issues surrounding Hartley. This controversial decision doesn’t require justification from Jones, nor does it need to affect the hooker’s ability on the pitch. What it also doesn’t need, though, is for the man himself to avoid the topic, therefore leaving it up to the media and fans to second guess his capability as captain of England. This was a prime opportunity for Hartley to explain how this role will change his attitude towards the game, or to say something on how having this responsibility will force him to play well and make the right decisions. I’m sure critics would have been more satisfied with a response along those lines, rather than the defensive answer he actually gave. Much like a suspect under police interrogation repeatedly answering ‘no comment’, his denial to face any questions about him restoring himself as a player made it more of an issue, as if there was something to hide or, more probably, he was embarrassed by his catalogue of errors.
When I asked him about whether he felt he could fulfil the role of captain, he protested
“I’m confident. I’m experienced with my club, I’ve played some big games there and I’ve done the role for six years. I’m fine with the role.”
Whilst that is a little more convincing (and of course the experience of leadership is vital), having led out a club side periodically for six years doesn’t equate to the significance of being the captain of the national side and the pressures that comes with it. On paper (well, a list of offences longer than his arm) it doesn’t look promising. The pressure cooker environment of the 2013 Premiership final – of which he was captain for Northampton – was too much for him, as an angry and abusive spat with the referee saw him receive a red card and a subsequent suspension, which denied him of a place in that years’ Lions tour. His first and currently last time as England captain was against South Africa in 2012 where he was shown a yellow card, not long after returning to action following an eight week ban for biting in the Six Nations tournament earlier that year.
Following this question, as Hartley sat looking uncomfortable, attention turned to Jones, who failed to entertain the idea of the media wanting to know reasons for his squad selection. When asked about the ten players who he’d recently released back to clubs, the Australian replied
“For each player there’s a reason, of which I’ve explained to them, and I’m not going to explain that to you because that’s between the player and myself. The press doesn’t pick our team, I pick the team with the coaches.”
Or in simpler terms, ‘keep your noses out’. For an industry still used to the sedate patter of Stuart Lancaster, that was a bit of a cut-off too. It seems Jones doesn’t like the intrigue, claiming “I’ve never seen so much media”, or perhaps he prefers to keep his cards close to his chest. He mentioned how the set-piece is a key area for him to work on with the team, especially ahead of the first game against Scotland, who’s set piece has solidified since last year’s Six Nations, where 79% of their scrums were successful, opposed to England’s 89%.
As far as things go for him and Hartley though, the support the captain received from his head coach seemed forced, although it could be argued that Jones must have the most trust in him to have chosen him as captain. They seemed too defensive and lacked the capacity to persuade others to their way of thinking – maybe they will look to silence their critics by winning the opener against Scotland.
For a player who has received the longest match ban in English history and who regularly takes a seat in the citing commissioner’s office, Hartley has a long way to go to earn the admiration this role usually attracts. He is a target for other teams who will know his weak-spot, push his buttons and attempt to jeopardise England’s game. There is also the question of how his team mates will follow his lead; crucially, how can you respect someone who doesn’t respect the game? Moreover, how can the aspiring youngster playing rugby at their local club look to Hartley as a role model? The maturity and level-headedness has been catastrophically absent before now, costing both club and country on various occasions. I am an optimist and hope for everyone’s sake, England Rugby, Eddie Jones and Hartley himself, that he will prove himself as s captain on the pitch rather than in the press room, but I am yet to be convinced.