There are still a few fixed points in this ever-changing rugby world: the All Blacks’ unwillingness to roll out of bed and grace the Pacific Islands with their lofty presence; the pleadings of poverty from the Welsh regional teams; Clermont Auvergne’s invincibility in front of their flag-waving supporters at Stade Marcel Michelin. Dylan Hartley falls squarely into this category. Every season, as sure as sunrise, he loses his rag and gives someone else a precious opportunity to nail down a place in the middle of the England front row.
He has been dispensing free gifts to his rival hookers for six years now and each time he does so, it costs him more. His most recent goodwill gesture took the form of a verbal assault on the referee Wayne Barnes during the Premiership final at Twickenham in May, and the beneficiary – Tom Youngs of Leicester – has grown very rich on the back of it.
Until Hartley said the wrong thing at the wrong volume to the wrong man in the wrong place, he and Youngs were both heading to Australia with the British and Irish Lions and were joint favourites to wear the England No 2 shirt in next month’s autumn international series. There is only one favourite now.
“Youngs is in pole position, without a shadow of a doubt,” says Mark Regan, the frank and forthright West Country forward who won 46 England caps in the position over 13 years, played in a World Cup final and a Lions Test and knows all there is to know about the unique demands and dynamics of the hooking role.
“Hartley has a lot of catching up to do because he’s miles behind. He’s started the season well – he’s a very good player – but Youngs saw his stock price go up with the Lions during the summer after Dylan shot himself in the foot. Again. He can’t keep his aggression within bounds and that’s a problem for him.
“The way I see it, Dylan would have been the man – THE man – but for those disciplinary issues of his. He still could be the man because in hooking terms, he’s still just a kid. It’s not too late. But he has to get a grip on things. It’s all very well being on fire, but if you’re not ice cool in the top two inches, you’re in trouble.
“I had my share of personal battles. How many times did I play against people who were fighting me for the England shirt? Richard Cockerill, Phil Greening, Dorian West, Steve Thompson…I saw them all come and go. And I always found a way of keeping the lid on it. Not once was I sent off. Never. And people wonder why I call myself the Gary Lineker of rugby!”
Regan has been dining out on that joke for years, but there is a serious point behind it. The hooking role is the most aggressively confrontational in the union game – an exercise in naked, no-holds-barred bastardry. As Cockerill, who coaches Youngs at Leicester, said this week: “Hooking is different, definitely. A tight-head doesn’t go directly against a tight-head; a loose-head doesn’t go against a loose-head. With hookers, you’re eyeball to eyeball, in the very thick of it.
“And you also have that element of exposure when you’re throwing at the line-out, with your opposite number hoeing into you with a few well-chosen words. If you talk a good game, as so many hookers do, you have to make bloody sure you can live up to your own hype. If you don’t, you’re there to be ripped apart by your opponent. It’s absolutely not the place to mess up, or back down, or retreat. It’s tough in there. Really tough.”
Listening to that, it stands to reason that the cool head will always lord it over the hothead. Regan was no angel, heaven knows, and he sees a good deal of himself in Hartley, against whom he played towards the end of his career and respected as a player of vast potential. What the older man did, year after year with striking success, was find a way of being whiter than white in his pursuance of the dark arts. “Opponents knew what they would get from me,” he says, “but I didn’t go around advertising it. You have to keep yourself on the field if you’re going to be of any use.”
Hence the fascination surrounding this afternoon’s Premiership derby at Welford Road, where Hartley will lead Northampton in their first meeting with their great East Midlands rivals since that fateful day at Twickenham last spring and will run smack into Youngs for good measure.
The New Zealand-born hooker accepts that he is draining his glass in the Last Chance Saloon – the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, pretty much told him as much a few weeks ago – and therefore finds himself in the most delicate of positions. To subdue Youngs, he will have to be at his most physical…and, at the same time, his most disciplined.
“In a way,” says Hartley, “it will be easier for me this time because the requirements are so obvious. I can see myself getting some gyp from the crowd, but it won’t be anything I haven’t experienced before. Actually, I love playing at Welford Road because I love the challenge it represents.” And Youngs? Does his presence at the heart of the Tigers pack crank things up? “I want to get myself back into the England starting line-up,” he responds, choosing his words carefully.
Hartley accepts that his rival is some way ahead of him in the race for the hooking slot against the Wallabies at the start of November – “I understand where I am at the moment; sometimes, you have to know your place” – but he has no intention of going after him in the way some of his international forerunners might have done. “I’d say our relationship is friendly and professional,” he continues. “I don’t go round to his place for Sunday roast or anything, but we get on.
“From my point of view, the important thing is not to waste time thinking about what someone else is doing and concentrate on developing my own approach to the game, my own sporting personality if you like. I think I’ve come to realise the importance of being a team man, a squad man. I know what it’s like to be in starting teams and to depend on the support of the people below you, so I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t take on that role myself with the proper enthusiasm.
“We have 50 players at Northampton, if you include the talented and very ambitious young players in the academy, and they can’t all play in the big games, like I do. They’re the guys who hold the tackle bags and don’t get a taste of the glory. It’s important to recognise their contribution, and it’s even more important to show the same commitment when you’re the one on the outside, as I probably am with England right now. That’s what I mean by recognising the position you’re in.”
This was no admission of defeat: Youngs won his England spurs when Hartley was injured before last year’s autumn meetings with the annual influx of tourists from the southern hemisphere and in a sport as brutally demanding as rugby, what goes around tends to come around.
Neither were his words the product of any Damascene conversion: he remains a compelling character precisely because he is not a wholly reformed one.
He does, however, have a firmer grasp of rugby reality – something Regan believes he must show today if he is to close the gap on Youngs in the short term. “Dylan has to stand up and be counted as a captain and resist the temptation to go off on his own crusade,” he says. “He has all the talent in the world. What he needs to show is some application.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m impressed by Youngs. It’s no small thing to move from centre to hooker and make a fist of it in the way he has, especially in a short space of time. But let’s get it right. He always had the physical equipment to play in the front row – stocky, barrel-chested, extremely strong – and he’s had the advantage of making his transformation in an outstanding side. He wouldn’t have found it so easy in a rubbish one.
“So there’s the context,” concludes Regan. “We have two very good hookers from unusual backgrounds chasing one place and it should be a real contest – the best we’ve seen for a while.
“The thing that distorts it at the moment is that one of them keeps giving the other opportunities on a plate. Dylan must be tearing his hair out, but in the end it’s his own fault.”
Dylan or Tom? Key contests
Today’s confrontation will tell us who has reacted more quickly to the new protocols. Hartley loved the heavy “hit”, but Youngs could prove more effective now the engagement favours flexibility over size.
Hartley scores heavily on the “darts”: his checkout success is something close to 100 per cent this season. Youngs concedes that this is the weakest part of his game.
Hartley is as good as anyone when it comes to taking a “contact” pass and making crucial yardage. As a former centre, Youngs is comfortable on the ball and a high-quality distributor.
Youngs’ ground coverage is outstanding and he draws on his midfield skill-set in the tackle. While Hartley is no shrinking violet, he is less likely to materialise in the wide areas.