As ends to the season go, Dylan Hartley’s final game of the 2012/2013 campaign couldn’t have been much worse. Sent off in the Premiership final, he was forced to watch from the stands as his team were steamrolled by fierce rivals the Leicester Tigers. Then came the long ban, which saw his dreams of playing for the Lions shattered as well. In one moment of madness, so much was taken away from him.
Speaking on Thursday, he revealed the soul-searching he’s been doing this summer and even that he offered to step down as captain of the Saints for the new season, had that been what the club wanted.
“I was aware that from the outside, people might want to see change,” he said. “I thought with the new season and the new signings that we’ve made, should we start afresh? I was open to stepping down, but Jim talked me out of it and said we want you to do it, we fully back you, the board back you, the lads back you. So I didn’t make the decision – it was made for me.”
Mallinder was certainly ebullient in his backing for Hartley, insisting he was still the right man for the job despite this latest instalment in a long line of brushes with the disciplinary panel.
“It wasn’t a decision we jumped at or made immediately,” the Northampton coach said. “There were lots of discussions but we still feel that Dylan is the best player to lead our team as he has shown over the last four years. He will be a better captain for what he has been through, a better person.”
The sad thing is we’ve heard it all before; whether Hartley will be able to keep himself on the right side of the law this season will be an intriguing subplot, but history certainly works against him.
Understandably, Hartley is keen to look forwards rather than back. He insists the disappointment of a Lions-less summer is behind him, and was even able to joke about all the unused kit he has left over.
“I was sent through all my Lions kit the other day actually, and I don’t know what to do with it – maybe you can put an auction in the paper for me or something?”
On a more serious note, Hartley says the most acute moment of his disappointment came not when the Lions were touring around Australia, but rather in the immediate moments after his dismissal in the final. He even considered taking some time out from the game to reassess things.
“I was more upset for my team and the loss than I was for myself missing the Lions,” he admitted. “That only affected me. My sending-off affected other people. I contemplated a bit of a gap year, taking some time out because of the mental strain.”
The Saints captain still stands behind his story – that what he said was not directed at the referee, but rather at a member of the opposition front row (we all know who that was, and his battles with Youngs this season both on the pitch and for the England spot will be feisty, to say the least).
“I can understand how it was interpreted, but I’ll stand by what I said before, that I know who I was talking to,” claimed Hartley. “I’ve heard much worse in the front row. I’ve got to have a look at it and see how it got to that point, how the ref interpreted it like that.
“Probably my approach to dealing with refs has got to change. You talk about sports psychologists, but I don’t really need that. I’ve been sitting down with Jim every couple of weeks, and just talking, going over games.
“I have sat down with Stuart Lancaster and I understand that he can’t keep giving me a chance. I’m basically on my last chance with the England set-up. That is fully understood. It was my worst experience in rugby.”
So once again Hartley seems to be full of remorse – whether that will translate to him being able to keep his head on the pitch, however, remains to be seen. He talks of this being his last chance with England, but there is surely only so much a club can put up with form their captain. Last chance saloon indeed.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images