Dylan Hartley: A Saint and a sinner who feels right at home

He got a six-month ban for gouging an England team-mate but made Wales coach eat humble pie. Now the happy hooker has France in his sights. Hugh Godwin meets Dylan Hartley
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The Independent Online

So what goes through the mind of an England hooker when the whistle goes for the first scrum against France, and the baleful eyes of Thomas Domingo, William Servat and Nicolas Mas are trained on you, and the dreams and fears of 80,000 Twickenham spectators and millions beyond are vested in your next move? "It's a feeler, the first one," says Dylan Hartley. "You don't know if they will go early, or drive you up, or take you down. You have to go in with a checklist that you're going to do every time. The French have a good front row, we've seen that. But if you sit there worrying about what they're going to do, you forget about yourselves and what you're good at."

The scrum was talked about a great deal before England played Italy last weekend – and it was a non-event. In 80 minutes there were four put-ins, a total that will surely be exceeded next Saturday, with greater pressure on the pass and the man in possession, and red-zone penalties encouraging one side or the other to try their luck. How does Hartley see it going? "'Dylan Hartley crumbling', you mean? 'Dylan Hartley bottling it'? It doesn't happen." No, that wasn't the headline I had in mind. Just that it could be a match full of scrums? "You prepare for the best French team possible getting off that bus," he says. "We'll be prepared for that."

Hookers, as you may gather, are not given to introspection but if it ever happens, Hartley has more than most to dwell upon. Growing up playing touch rugby with a tennis ball or a stone, barefoot at break-time at school in Rotorua, the sulphur-spring town on New Zealand's North Island; an exchange trip to Sussex at the age of 16 that turned into an emigration to England; the stint in Worcester's academy which brought him to Northampton's attention.

He was a loosehead prop in England age-group sides until a few matches at hooker persuaded the Saints' then coach Budge Pountney to sign him with only the No 2 jersey in mind. "I had no idea how to throw a ball, it was all just natural and what I taught myself on the basketball court down the road," Hartley recalls. And it was only six seasons ago.

Near the end of the second year, in a match at Wasps, came the triple accusation of gouging which arrested Hartley's rapid progress. The offence against James Haskell, now an England team-mate, cost Hartley a likely call-up to that year's World Cup. He was banned from playing for six months; a sentence that has become a disciplinary benchmark. "I didn't try to itch the back of his skull," Hartley recalls. "I kind of grabbed him by the head and pulled him through a ruck. I can easily talk about it now because I know it does not affect me any more." He was reckless, he says. And keen and competitive. And, above all, young. How quickly did Haskell forgive him? "Oh, straight away. He knew I didn't mean it. We've roomed together a few times since."

Though still aged only 24, Hartley has been Northampton's captain for two years. He pays tribute to Dorian West, the Leicester and England hooker turned Saints forwards coach, for getting him to knuckle down. In the first half against Italy, Hartley's smooth throw contributed to three tries in a row direct from England line-outs.

Yet the build-up to the previous match in Wales was notable for comments by the home side's coach Warren Gatland, aimed at preying on Hartley's temperament. Gatland said he was put out by Hartley's evidence in a "contact with the eyes" case involving Wales scrum-half Richie Rees; among other things, he poked fun at Hartley's throw "going to pieces" in a match at Leicester.

"Leicester had obviously done their homework," Hartley recalls, quite calmly. "I remember one of the first balls I missed, or under-threw even, and I had Richard Blaze, their line-out analyst, behind me on the sideline. Just as I'd got the call, so I knew where the ball was going, I could hear Richard Blaze behind me shouting to the Leicester boys where it was going. After that you lose a bit of confidence and it's hard. I lost five or six and the old shepherd's crook came out. But you're big enough to realise it was a bad day at the office and everyone has them."

So was he surprised that Gatland – a New Zealander and ex-hooker – chose line-out foibles as a means of criticism? "I don't know if he ever experienced what I've experienced, five metres out from your own line, in front of 80,000 ... I don't know – did he play?" Well, he sat on the bench for the All Blacks many times and played often for Waikato, I reply, unsure of Hartley's reasoning. "OK, so he must roughly know what it's like. It did bother me a bit. It was weird, hard to explain. I was nervous before playing Wales, but I didn't want to shy away from it. Deep down I knew I could do the job. It came through for me, and I did my job. It was a big weight off my shoulders when that game was won." The handshake from Gatland after the match was "awkward". Hartley felt many pairs of eyes on them as they ate their post-match meal. "It's buried, I don't hold grudges," he says.

He also feels that "as an all-rounder things have come on greatly – my line-out stats are the best they have been and the scrum is going well". He is hopeful of better this time against France than last March in Paris, when he was hooked off at half-time. "I don't want to start saying things about that," Hartley says. "But it was messy, I'd like to put that right and it's one of my focuses in the build-up for this game. The French are very technical and certainly pose a threat. But we're English and we pride ourselves on our scrummaging." And as a prop growing up, who were his heroes? An All Black titan, perhaps Olo Brown or Craig Dowd? "Jonah Lomu," he replies. Not a prop, of course, though Lomu was built like Andrew Sheridan, who after playing for Sale yesterday should be fit to rejoin England's first-choice front row alongside Hartley and Dan Cole.

Hartley has never been homesick; he is happy that his English mother and Kiwi father have his two brothers, who lived here for a while but returned to New Zealand. "I consider England my home now," he says. "What makes home? Family, I suppose, and so do friends. But I've got enough friends here and the only thing that's missing is my parents and they're only a flight away."

It seems that the metaphorical whiff of cordite in an Anglo-French scrum is a fine substitute for the sulphurous smell of Rotorua.

Dylan Hartley took part in an England rugby team driving day with Land Rover, a proud partner of England rugby. To win VIP tickets to an RBS Six Nations game at Twickenham visit www.landrover.co.uk/rugby

Factfile: A forward thinker

Born 24 March 1986, Rotorua, New Zealand.

Early doors Moved to England in 2002 and played for Beacon Rugby Academy in Crowborough, East Sussex.

Club career Played 49 times for Worcester Warriors before moving to Northampton Saints. They won the European Challenge Cup in 2009 and he was named Saints' captain for 2009-10. He led them in one of the great Heineken Cup matches, beating Munster 31-27 at Franklin's Gardens on 9 October 2009.

International career After making his debut for the England Saxons against Italy in February 2007, Hartley was on the verge of being included in Brian Ashton's World Cup squad but he was banned for 26 weeks on 24 April 2007 after been found guilty of eye-gouging against Wasps and missed out on World Cup selection. He made his Test debut off the bench against Pacific Islanders at Twickenham in November 2008 in Martin Johnson's first game as England head coach. A year later, he scored his first and only try for England against New Zealand at Twickenham within three minutes of coming on. He has started the first two matches of the 2011 Six Nations and was heavily criticised by Wales coach Warren Gatland.