Hartley is converted to a Saint among the sinners

Matured hooker has learned the error of his ways but he's still ready to rumble
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There is the long-winded approach to defining what professional rugby is about – the 138 pages of the Rugby Football Union's Image of the Game report last week springs to mind – and then there is the infinitely more digestible version from Dylan Hartley. "I still like watching a game and seeing a bit of a scrap," said the Northampton captain and England hooker. "It's a contact sport. There's collisions and things aren't always going to be friendly. You need to play on the edge with aggression and sometimes things go over. It's just a part of the game."

From those few words, which were not hollow bravado by Hartley but a considered opinion as he contemplated his club's Premiership trip to Wasps today and Saturday's juicy Heineken Cup opener at home to Munster, all of rugby follows. There will be blood, sweat and tears, and it is up to the administrators (heaven help 'em) to frame the laws and rules that make it work and keep it in check.

There will always be human nature and human error and, at the risk of grossly simplifying the thick wads of graphs and data gathered by the RFU's Game Task Group, they account for the statistically rare instances of drug-taking, fake blood and feigning injury. The latter was reported most often but, frankly, unless players are going to be x-rayed as they leave the field there will always be scope for throwing a sicky. Either that or revert to 15 against 15 and let the devil take the one forced to play with a broken leg.

Hartley's most famous faux pas was a double case of gouging against Wasps in 2007 which landed him a six-month ban. He made a mistake but Hartley believes he has learned the lesson and changed as a player and a man. The 23-year-old from Rotorua, reared by Northampton's academy, was picked by Martin Johnson for the England bench for last season's autumn and Six Nations Tests, and for two starts against Argentina when Lee Mears was with the Lions.

"I can actually remember thinking 'right, keep your head down, cut the shit and get on with it'," said Hartley. "And you mature. It's rewarding to look back and see how I've progressed. It's a testament to myself and people around me like [Saints coaches] Jim Mallinder, Dorian West, Paul Grayson, who've nurtured me and got me back on track." Even down to his short back and sides? "Yeah, that was part of it. I had Dorian West in my ear, with his old school Leicester mentality, calling me a blond bimbo, with your long hair, smarten yourself up.

"People who watch me every week at Northampton would say I'm a saint. Go somewhere else and I've still kind of got that reputation hanging over me." So opponents still try and wind him up? "Yeah, and it makes me laugh, because that's what I used to do. It makes me think 'you're taking your mind off your job to annoy me, but I'm blanking you out and just concentrating on what I'm doing'. It's easy to handle. I know what's happening."

It was against Munster in a friendly in Limerick that Hartley made his first-team debut in August 2005. After three wins in four Premiership matches this season, Northampton are in good heart for renewing a rivalry dating back to the 2000 Heineken Cup final, won by the English side at Twickenham.

"We could turn up against Munster next week and get a hiding; we could turn up as underdogs and the unknown and win," Hartley said. And with the straightest face this side of a Caesars Palace poker table, he answered "don't know who they are" to a mention of Munster's Lions locks Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan. Good on you, Dylan. The ability to take the mickey – and be on the end of it – is as much a core value of this game as Teamwork and Respect and the rest.

Heineken Cup: Pool-by-pool guide

Pool One: Munster, Perpignan, Northampton, Treviso

No matter which way the organisers cut the cake, someone gets the crusty end of the wedge. So Europe's No 1 seeds Munster have landed high-flying opposition from France and England. Pity Treviso, who conceded 291 points in their six matches last season.

Pool Two: Biarritz, Gloucester, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Glasgow Warriors

Having scraped through a play-off against Calvisano to qualify, the Dragons have been treated kindly by the draw. Biarritz and Gloucester are notorious for their off-days. The third, fourth and fifth-ranked pool runners-up go into the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup, so there's plenty to play for.

Pool Three: Leicester, Ospreys, Clermont Auvergne, Viadana

Friends and enemies reunited. Leicester and Ospreys are building a history of their own – paper-thin margins and a fall-out over gouging in last season's Heineken meetings were just the most recent examples – while the Tigers coach, Richard Cockerill, spent two years with Clermont. Good luck, Viadana.

Pool Four: Bath, Stade Français, Ulster, Edinburgh

Stade's purveyors of pink jerseys have disciples in Bath, who have taken to wearing equally garish training kit. The French have a final on home turf to shoot for but have already sacked their coaches this season. Edinburgh may be the bottom seeds in the group but they are the men in form.

Pool Five: Toulouse, Cardiff Blues, Sale Sharks, Harlequins

Three-times winners Toulouse are Europe's fourth seeds behind Munster, Leicester and Leinster. Too good for Sale and Quins, you would think, but Cardiff Blues will be fancied to kick on from reaching last year's semi-final – though much depends on Lions centre Jamie Roberts regaining full fitness.

Pool Six: Leinster, London Irish, Scarlets, Brive

This should be the pool for tries, with the holders Leinster and Brian O'Driscoll matched against Sailosi Tagicakibau (or Paddy Cakibau, as his fans at London Irish like to call him) and Scarlets' flyer Mark Jones, who has lit this competition up in the past, notably against the Exiles.

Hugh Godwin

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