New-look Saints stick with captain Dylan Hartley
Northampton parade Premiership's strongest set of summer signings at swanky Stowe School
Northampton Saints paraded possibly the Aviva Premiership's strongest set of summer signings in the swanky surroundings of Stowe School, but the place reserved for the captain front and centre in the team photograph was occupied by the familiar figure of Dylan Hartley.
As with England, who retained Hartley in their senior squad last week despite the hooker serving the latest in a series of suspensions, the club said they had given serious thought to bringing his four-year run as skipper to an end, but resisted the demotion.
Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, suggested even the best players were liable to "push it too far occasionally" and that Hartley had turned the other cheek in the face of deliberate provocation in big matches often enough to suggest his temperament was not a major problem.
Having lost on their first appearance in the Premiership final last May, when Hartley was sent off for abusing the referee just before half-time, Northampton needed no better evidence of the cost of a lapse in discipline. "We took a lot of time to decide what was the right thing," said Mallinder. "In big games in front of 80,000 people there is a lot of stress on everyone concerned. What happened shouldn't have happened but we all make mistakes, we learn and we move on and make sure it doesn't happen again. It was a hard lesson to learn but I think Dylan will learn that lesson."
The hooker spoke of his regret at the incident, and his understanding that this is his final chance.
"I'm extremely thankful for the chances I've had with various coaches," Hartley told BBC Radio Northampton.
"With Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree at England, and Jim Mallinder [the Northampton director of rugby] here, there are loyal people sticking with me. I can't let them down.
"Especially with Stuart, if there's anything else, it's the end of the road for me with England.
"I understand it can't be blind faith. I let Saints down because I wasn't there when they needed me.
"That will always hang over me. If we'd had 15 men on the field, we would've won that final."
Hartley also accepted that he was close to losing the captaincy - something he considered in the aftermath of the incident that saw him become the first player to be red carded in a Premiership final.
"There was a stage when I sat down with Jim and said, 'do people want to see a change in captain?'
"I had it clear in my head that I'd probably step down. I'd still be a good player, I'd still contribute but I didn't want that hanging over the new-look Saints, because this year we have a squad that can contend.
"Jim and the coaching team have picked me.
"I'm not going to go around and apologise to every single supporter. I'm very aware that it's the fans we play for and that they're very passionate about the game.
"But no-one is as passionate as me. I let my team-mates down. I lost the Premiership final and a Lions tour as well."
But he remains defiant that his verbal abuse was not aimed at referee Wayne Barnes but at opposite number Tom Youngs, and claims he has let it go to focus on the new season ahead.
“I apologise for the outcome but when I, hand on my heart, know what I said and who I directed it at, I find it hard to apologise for that. Having been through the disciplinary process, I can see how it was interpreted and I've received a ban.
"You go through different stages of reflecting, a bit of mourning maybe. You're a bit upset then you re-focus and I've been through all that. I want to make a good impression come the start of the season."
Hartley is being reminded daily of the British & Irish Lions tour that he missed through his 11-week ban – it expires on 1 September, six days before Northampton's first match of the new Premiership season against Exeter. That is because Saints' seven newcomers include the England prop Alex Corbisiero and Wales wing George North, who were both stars of the victorious Lions trip Down Under.
North was top try-scorer on the tour. If North's previous team, the Scarlets, had been better placed financially, the 21-year-old might still be playing at home in Wales, but the Pro12's loss is the Premiership's, and specifically Northampton's, gain.
"I haven't had the chance to win anything with the Scarlets; winning trophies was one of the reasons I was really keen to come here," said North. "In Wales everyone thinks the Premiership is all about the forwards' game. But we are aiming to play attacking rugby."
That goal will be helped by the arrival of former England fly-half Alex King – latterly employed schooling the wondrous back line at Clermont Auvergne – as Saints' backs coach, and the Samoa scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i. "On paper we've signed some good ones," said Mallinder, "but only time will tell."
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