Few spectators collapsed with shock when Dylan Hartley spent time in the sin bin during the narrow defeat by South Africa a fortnight ago: leaving aside the truly heinous crimes of shaving on match day and running off with the beer kitty, the England hooker has worked his way through the list of rugby’s deadly sins during a tempestuous career at the top level. Yet when it comes to his latest transgression, he claims to have been wholly misunderstood.
“What I did was stupid, but it wasn’t crazy: it wasn’t a red-mist moment,” he said, referring to the incident in which his boot connected with the knee of Duane Vermeulen as the Springbok No 8 lay prone – up to no good, admittedly, but still prone – at a driving line-out maul.
“Usually, when people do something crazy there isn’t a thought process involved. There was definitely a thought process on this occasion. I even put my hand on Vermeulen’s leg and tapped it, to show the referee that this guy was in the way. I’m not there to tiptoe around people, and anyway, I didn’t go for the knee. I was aiming for a fleshy part of the leg.
“If it had been me pulling down a maul I’d have expected a shoeing, and at club level you might get away with it. But you can’t do it on the big stage, not with bloody slow-motion, high-definition cameras around. It’s a grey area, all this: there are times when a referee might think there’s something just about a bit of self-policing. Obviously, the referee at Twickenham didn’t think it was just.
England starting line-up vs Australia
England starting line-up vs Australia
1/22 15. Mike Brown
Age: 29 Caps: 32 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Harlequins
2/22 14. Anthony Watson
Age: 20 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
3/22 13. Brad Barritt
Age: 28 Caps: 21 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Saracens
4/22 12. Billy Twelvetrees
Age: 26 Caps: 15 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
5/22 11. Jonny May
Age: 24 Caps: 10 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
6/22 10. George Ford
Age: 21 Caps: 5 Tries: 0 Conversions: 3 Penalties: 4 Points: 18 Club: Bath
7/22 9. Ben Youngs
Age: 25 Caps: 41 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Leicester Tigers
8/22 1. Joe Marler
Age: 24 Caps: 25 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Harlequins
9/22 2. Dylan Hartley
Age: 28 Caps: 60 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Northampton Saints
10/22 3. David Wilson
Age: 29 Caps: 40 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
11/22 4. Dave Attwood
Age: 27 Caps: 15 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
12/22 5. Courtney Lawes
Age: 25 Caps: 35 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
13/22 6. Tom Wood
Age: 28 Caps: 33 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
14/22 7. Chris Robshaw
Age: 28 Caps: 31 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Harlequins
15/22 8. Ben Morgan
Age: 25 Caps: 24 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Gloucester
16/22 16. Rob Webber
Age: 28 Caps: 9 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Bath
17/22 17. Matt Mullan
Age: 27 Caps: 6 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Wasps
18/22 18. Kieran Brookes
Age: 24 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Newcastle
19/22 19. George Kruis
Age: 24 Caps: 1 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Saracens
20/22 20. James Haskell
Age: 29 Caps: 52 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Wasps
21/22 22. Owen Farrell
Age: 23 Caps: 28 Tries: 2 Con: 35 Pens: 69 Drop-goals: 1 Points: 290 Club: Saracens
22/22 23. Marland Yarde
Age: 22 Caps: 6 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Harlequins
“Was I dropped from the starting team for Samoa for disciplinary reasons? You’ll have to ask Stuart Lancaster because I don’t know if he was always planning to make changes for the game, but I suppose I helped him make up his mind by getting that yellow card. I was a bit nervous during the week because Rob Webber [the Bath hooker who has been understudying Hartley throughout this series] had a solid game while I played only nine minutes off the bench. So yes, I’m pleased to be back.”
Whatever Hartley’s record may indicate to the contrary, this England pack is at its best when he is at the epicentre of close-quarter affairs, winding up the opposition in the time-honoured tradition of Brian Moore and Mark Regan, hitting his line-out jumpers with heat-seeking accuracy, tackling like the proverbial ton of bricks and, every once in a while, making handling contributions that would have the very best footballers in his native New Zealand doffing their caps. Certainly, the Wallabies will fear his set-piece prowess today.
Over the last decade and a half, England-Australia games have tended to be defined by events at the sharp end – the perception being that everything hangs on the precise degree of domination achieved by the red-rose forwards. But things are not always as they seem. In the early 2000s, the non-scrummaging scrum practices favoured by the super-smart Wallaby coach Eddie Jones occasionally bore fruit, and even when England marmalised the Australian scrum in Perth four years ago, they finished 10 points adrift on the scoreboard. “It was like Muhammad Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ all over again,” said Hartley’s predecessor in the No 2 shirt, Steve Thompson, that night. “They let us punch ourselves out.”
According to Hartley, today’s Wallaby front-rowers – James Slipper, Sekope Kepu and his direct opponent Saia Fainga’a – will not have recourse to the slippery tactics of old. “I’ve said right from the start that the current scrum protocols are better for teams who really want to do something with their set piece,” he commented. “Back in the old hit-and-chase days, teams could bale out of the contest and con referees in a variety of ways. Now, it’s glaringly obvious to the officials if a side doesn’t want to scrum. The changes to the engagement keep people honest.”
Which is precisely the way he and his props, Joe Marler and David Wilson, seem to like it. For all England’s trials and tribulations in the game-management department over the course of this autumn campaign – not to mention some uncharacteristic slippage in the discipline department – the performance of the pack has definitely been something to write home about. A penalty try against a retreating New Zealand set piece? No mean feat. A pair of driving maul tries against the Springboks? Deeply satisfying. Complete command of scrum, line-out and maul against a dangerous bunch of Samoans? Full marks all round.
“I do think that the highlight for us in this series has been the forward pack: not just in terms of our set piece, although that’s been outstanding, but in the way restarts and kick receipts have become the anchors of our game,” Hartley said. “One of our themes this week has been the importance of taking full value from what we’re doing up front. If you find something that works for you, don’t get bored with doing it. That’s the message.
“But we know there’s a perception out there concerning the Australian pack – a perception that puts pressure on us to perform. We all know the stories of the past, but there’s no way we’ll be complacent. When you play the Wallabies, you’re going toe to toe with one of the big teams in world rugby. We’re very aware of that.”
It was the referee Steve Walsh – an Australian who spent the first few years of his whistling career as a New Zealander – who gave Hartley a 10-minute rest without the option during the Springbok game: 10 minutes that turned into something considerably longer when Lancaster decided against reintroducing his errant hooker to the contest. Hartley was not particularly surprised at the head coach’s decision. What did surprise him was the torrent of abuse he received on social media following the game.
“I retweeted some of it,” he said. “I thought it was the best way for people to see some of the stuff that gets written. It’s not the kind of thing that keeps me up at night – some of it is quite amusing, I guess – but it’s not right for anyone to be bullied by these people.”
It is safe to say that if Hartley ever comes face to face with a keyboard warrior, an outbreak of self-policing might ensue. There would be no “red mist” about it – the thought process would be very clear – and if there is any justice, there would be no sign of a yellow card either.
HARTLEY IN NUMBERS
60 - Matches played for England, scoring one try. He made his debut in 2008
11 - Given an 11-week ban for abusing the referee in the 2013 Premiership final
26 - Got a 26-week ban after being found guilty of eye-gouging in 2007