Hartley: The Highest Profile Victim of World Rugby’s Recent Directives

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Last Word On Rugby, by Steve Kendall.

Six minutes. That is all the time it took for Dylan Hartley to become the latest and the highest profile victim of World Rugby’s recent directives.  Some say that is all the time it took for Hartley to remind us what a thug he is, all the time it took for the demons to return to his game and for the old Hartley to return to professional rugby.

The facts are clear. Hartley caught Sean O’Brien with a swinging arm across the side of the head with tremendous force.  It was a red card offence, and he had to leave the field.  The laws are the laws, and no matter how frustrating they may be, they are in place and are being implemented with zero tolerance by referees.

Rugby World Divided

Yet the rugby world is divided – albeit not down the middle – on the incident itself and also the consequences.

The majority of the media, ex-players & supporters believe this was a clear indication that Hartley has not changed and that he can be responsible for some heinous acts on a rugby field. Tales of his early career are being dragged back out in an attempt to highlight his innate violent character on the pitch and indeed, his disciplinary record is far from enviable even for the ‘dirtiest’ of players.

One Calendar Year Worth Of Bans

Hartley has accumulated over one full calendar year worth of bans (54 weeks plus); indiscretions which have been varied in their form but have included gouging, biting, punching and elbowing. He has tested the patience of his club coach – Jim Mallinder – as well as his former England coaches, and he seems to have been given several ‘last chances’.  He was always likely to be a player that would be particularly affected by World Rugby’s recent directives.

There are some though [and this writer is included among them] that think slightly differently. This is for *two reasons:

Firstly, there is no doubting his previous disciplinary record and the impact it has had upon the teams he has been a part of during those times. Yet Eddie Jones was not only prepared to forget the previous deviations, he was also ready to thrust him into the limelight making him his captain and leader.  Lest we forget, David Flatman summed it up brilliantly in a tweet over the weekend:

Traditional Values

Jones wanted England to revert back to their traditional values. I have written before that he didn’t want them to try and be the All Blacks.  He wanted them to be the best English team that they could be and he believed that that would allow them to complete and beat the best sides in the world.  Hartley, despite being of New Zealand birth, embodied what he was looking for in the England Rugby captain and as Flatman says, that is exactly what he got.

It is hardly unusual for the English rugby captain to be involved in disciplinary matters. The lifting of the World Cup made Martin Johnson a legend throughout the nation.  To many, he is the perfect leader, but there were many a late night where journalists were waiting to hear the disciplinary rulings on the brooding second-row forward.  Johnson epitomised the notion of not backing down and settling scores on the field and he would accumulate several bans because of it.

Physically Scared

Johnny Wilkinson tells of being physically scared of the likes of Johnson when he came into the team, but this did not top him respecting him and following him as his leader. It also did not stop Johnson from becoming the Lions captain or lifting the World Cup.

The second reason* why I think we need to temper the fully-fuelled condemnation of Hartley, is that timing has become such a dividing factor for challenges in professional rugby–the line between stupendous hit and a malicious assault is so thin.

Had O’Brien not been falling as a result of a tackle by Tom Wood around his ankles, then Hartley’s arm would have wrapped itself around his torso. It could well have been a tremendous hit that would have rocked Leinster’s talismanic ball-carrier. The tackle very well have energised his own players, to engage more with their opponents.

Ex-Wales flanker Martyn Williams seemed to think so when he commented on Twitter;

Hartley-Lite Not An Attractive Concept

As it happened, the Irishman’s head ended up where his shoulders and mid-rift were and hence the ‘haymaker clothes-line’ that we all witnessed. It is this line that players like Hartley will always be hovering on.  If you take away this element of his game, you make him half the player.  He most certainly would not have been considered by Eddie Jones had this element of his game been softened by the many dalliances with referees and citing committees up and down the country.  Hartley-lite is not an attractive concept.

The other question that has been raised by this incident is whether he can continue to captain England and indeed the Lions if selected to do so. I see no reason for Jones to go back on his choice as Hartley is yet to err when playing for him, and indeed one might argue that to select Dylan for his abrasive qualities and then ask him to always stay the right side of the line he so very evidently inhabits is unrealistic.

The Lions captaincy is down to two things; playing time and Warren Gatland’s selection. I still believe there is nothing stopping him from being Lions captain in theory, it is more to do with how lengthy a ban he receives for Friday’s incident. Then, how much game time he gets for England in the Six Nations.

It is also whether Gatland decides to utilise the psychological edge that Rory Best gives him having led Ireland to victory over the All Blacks in Chicago. Or the tried and tested Sam Warburton–a Gatland favourite from day one–or Alan Wyn Jones.

Relationship With Club Coach

What is more at risk, as I see it, is Hartley’s relationship with his club coach who has stuck with him for so long.

Lawrence Dallaglio has been particularly vocal recently in his criticism of Hartley’s commitment towards England at the expense of Northampton, even prompting the hooker to look at his pay slip to remind him who pays his wages.  Dallaglio was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying

“Dylan’s sort of checked out of playing for Northampton. He’s been brilliant for England. According to Eddie Jones he’s been a great leader. But he’s checked out of playing for his club and I don’t think you can do that.”

There are rumours that the Mallinder/Hartley relationship has run its course, the England star is not even first choice at the moment having to sit behind Mike Haywood for the starting berth. Furthermore, Mallinder’s reaction, when interviewed about the Hartley incident at the end of the Leinster game, was one more of exasperation rather than anger, although the Saints man does a very good job of concealing a simmering rage with that warm smile of his.

World Rugby’s recent directives have been clearly communicated.  Fans wait to see the impact Hartley’s record will have; with regard to this particular transgression, of those directives. There is also the ‘knock-on impact’ it will have to his club, country and British and Irish Lions chances but for most, he is still the man to lead England. There would be a poetic quality to his leading of the Lions into the toughest place to play in World Rugby [New Zealand]. What we do know of Hartley is that he would never take a backward step.

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