Dylan Hartley: I've had a lot of time to think and this is my last chance
After spectacularly talking himself out of the Lions tour, the hooker knows an England future depends on cleaning up his act
Dylan Hartley has been deaf and blind to the consequences of committing rugby's deadly sins in recent years. Sadly for the Northampton hooker and captain, he has not always been dumb. When he called the international referee Wayne Barnes a "cheat" during last season's Premiership final with Leicester at Twickenham, he talked himself out of a place on the Lions tour of Australia and very nearly called time on his own England career.
Today, the New Zealand-born forward returned to the scene of the crime for the official launch of the new Premiership campaign and openly admitted that his chances of returning to the red-rose front row this autumn – or, indeed, ever – are now entirely dependent on his ability to keep his mouth shut and his nose clean.
Sent off by Barnes and subsequently banned for 11 weeks – the Rugby Football Union took a very dim view of his remark, especially as it was heavily Anglo-Saxonised on delivery – he has spent the summer reconsidering his approach to life at rugby's sharp end.
"I've had a lot of time off, a lot of time to reflect, a lot of time to think," he said. "Basically, I'm on my last chance as far as the England set-up is concerned. That's understood."
Hartley argued at the time that his words had not been aimed at Barnes and he is sticking to his guns. "I said what I said," he acknowledged, "and I can understand how the incident was interpreted. But I stand by what I said in that I know who I was talking to, or talking about."
For all that, he now accepts that having also been banned for biting, gouging and punching – it is not known whether he has ever been found guilty of shaving on match days, which is just about the only offence remaining – he must clean up his act.
Once the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, had made his feelings known – the Cumbrian was far from happy that one of his senior players, a man who had led the national team in South Africa a few months previously, should have fallen foul of the disciplinary class in such a spectacular fashion – the question arose of how Northampton would deal with the situation. Some felt Hartley should be stripped of the captaincy, at the very least, for his latest indiscretion.
"I was open to stepping down but Jim [Mallinder, the director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens] talked me out of it," the player revealed. "I was aware that from the outside, people might want to see a change in the captaincy. Also, with our new signings and our changes in the coaching team, I thought we should start afresh. But the decision was made for me. Jim and I spoke over a few coffees and he said: 'We want you to do it. I back you, the board backs you and the lads back you'."
It seems the Northampton supporters back him too, even if that view is not always reflected in the rest of the country. "Generally, the people in Northampton have been really supportive," Hartley said. "I've never had anyone come up to my face and tell me what they think of me. It's usually someone hiding behind a keyboard, and I know how to deal with all that crap."
Did the Lions shut-out hurt him? It was quite an opportunity, after all, and judging by the way things panned out in Australia over the course of the 10-match tour, he would probably have played at least one Test against the Wallabies.
Hartley was wounded at the time – "Walking towards the touchline after being sent off was the worst moment of my career. Everything was in slow motion" – but quickly found he had deeper regrets. "I was more upset about the team and the fact that we went on to lose the final," he confessed. "Why? Because that affected people other than me.
"The Lions thing affected me alone. I went on holiday straight away and I couldn't watch the matches because there was no television. I kept in touch on social media and spoke to friends who were playing on the tour, but that was about it. Funnily enough, I was sent all my Lions kit the other day. I don't know what to do with it. Maybe I'll auction it for charity."
Mallinder, who has signed two of the best-performing Lions in the Wales wing George North and the England prop Alex Corbisiero, believes Hartley will rise above the latest blow to his reputation and help establish the Midlanders as the team to beat over the next couple of years.
"His captaincy wasn't a decision that we jumped at," Mallinder said. "There were lots of discussions with lots of people. But in the end, we all came to the conclusion that he's the best player to lead our team.
"He's done it over the last four years and has the experience. He's grown into the player he is. We've all made mistakes, but we all have to move on. I believe Dylan will be a better captain for what he's just gone through. A better player, too… and a better person."
One of Worcester's big signings, the Argentine back-rower Leonardo Senatore, will not be available until November after picking up a nine-week ban for biting the Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth on the forearm during a Test in Mendoza last weekend.
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