It wasn’t too long ago that many pundits were praising Dylan Hartley for the improvements he had made to his temperament, whilst still being able to play with his characteristic passion and determination. A lot can change in a week however, and a wholly unacceptable incident at Twickenham on Saturday has raised far more questions than answers in regards to the hooker and his long-term future with England, not to mention his withdrawal from the Lions squad soon to tour Australia.
This is far from Hartley’s first indiscretion, with an unfavourable disciplinary record reaching back to 2007, and involving some serious incidents, including his first offence, a 26-week ban for eye-gouging both James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor. There was then a fairly uncontroversial period for Hartley, who went on to make his England debut, become Northampton captain, and develop into one of the top hookers in world rugby. That being said, the fire that he plays with has always had him walking a thin line between what is acceptable and what isn’t on the rugby pitch.
This ‘quiet’ period did not last, however, and in March 2012 Hartley was banned for eight weeks after biting Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations match against Ireland, before also being banned for two weeks in December, this time for punching – slightly ironically – Rory Best, who now replaces him in the Lions touring party. Sandwiched in between these two incidents however, was a solitary England appearance as captain, during England’s summer tour of South Africa, where Hartley was yellow-carded.
Questions now abound over the future of Hartley at international level. The incident at Twickenham, where Hartley called referee Wayne Barnes a ‘f—— cheat’, has resulted in an 11-week ban, and even led Lions head coach Warren Gatland to describe the incident as ‘going to the edge of the cliff and jumping off’. Hartley’s Lions dream is over, at least for the next four years, and so likely are his ambitions to captain England on a more regular basis. With some sections of the media unconvinced by Chris Robshaw’s long-term viability as an England starter, and therefore his place as captain, Hartley had been favoured by some as his successor. Arguably, Hartley’s past infringements would have made him a risky and controversial choice, but with his latest misdemeanour, those calls have already all but faded away.
His place as Northampton captain is likely safe, with Jim Mallinder supporting the player following the incident, and publicly stating that he also believes Hartley’s comment was directed at opposite number Tom Youngs. Hartley’s place within the England team may be less secure however, having already lost his starting place to the aforementioned Youngs in this year’s Six Nations campaign. Although Hartley’s behaviour should in no way be advocated, he is a very skilled player, and threw more successful lineouts (at a success rate of 88%) than any other hooker in the Premiership, and alongside Youngs potentially provides England with one of the best one-two punches at the position in world rugby.
Hartley’s future with England could, in part, be answered by the performances of Rob Webber and Rob Buchanan on England’s summer tour of Argentina, particularly if the pair can perform to a standard which Lancaster believes will challenge Youngs for the England number two shirt. The RFU and Northampton will both be keen to help Hartley curb his temperament on the pitch, but if other players are ready to step up and take over his role, England especially may say enough is enough, and start a new, less controversial chapter.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)