Hartley puts the snarl back into front-row beasts

The hooker was one of England's few pluses in standing his ground against Argentina's much-vaunted pack, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

It was well nigh impossible to penetrate the gloom surrounding and enshrouding the England camp in the aftermath of a narrow victory that felt like a heavy defeat. Martin Johnson, for one, was in no mood to try, and if the man running the operation felt like digging a hole in which to bury himself, there was never much likelihood of his specialist coaches appearing in public view to "take the positives" from the occasion.

But there may have been a glimmer of light, extremely faint but just about visible to the naked eye. Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, promoted to starting positions at hooker and No 8 respectively, performed with sufficient vim and vigour to suggest that England are finally on the road to building themselves a half-decent pack of forwards. There was an energy about their work – an aggression, a hunger – that hinted at a potential return to the days of yore, when big men in white shirts (as opposed to purple ones) drew lines in the sand and challenged opponents to cross it, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't dare.

If it was Haskell who most frequently caught the eye – together with the Leicester flankers Tom Croft and Lewis Moody, he found answers to the most difficult questions posed of him by the passionately motivated Pumas – it was Hartley who emerged with pass marks in the toughest examinations. His throwing at the line-out was generally excellent, despite the taxing conditions, and his appetite for taking on the South Americans in open field was not for a second diminished by the punishment they meted out.

Most impressively, he fought tooth and nail with one of the more formidable front rows in world rugby and landed a few telling blows of his own. Sometimes, he sailed close to the wind: Nigel Owens, the referee, had words as the Northampton captain engaged in a running feud with the loose-head prop Rodrigo Roncero, whose reputation for pacifism can safely be said to be non-existent. Indeed, Hartley got on the tourists' nerves to such an extent that they finally gave him the full treatment and effectively smashed him off the field. If he sees Martin Scelzo ever again, it might just be a little too soon.

"Actually, I took the heaviest hit very early on," Hartley revealed. "But hey, I loved it out there. It's what we front-rowers do, isn't it? We'd read all week about how the Pumas would bully us and push us around, but we all agreed before the game that there would be no backward step and I think we lived up to that. I believe we can take a lot from that part of our game, because we played against a very physical pack of forwards and stood our ground."

A smart set of selectors will build a new tight unit around the 23-year-old hooker from New Zealand's north island, who has it in him to give his adopted country some attitude, with a capital "A" – just as the likes of Sean Fitzpatrick and Phil Kearns did to the All Black and Wallaby packs in the late 1980s and early '90s. The red-rose forwards have been far too conciliatory for far too long. With Hartley on the field, nicer than nice will not be an option.

Not even when Hartley's countrymen come visiting this weekend, with their haka at full snarl. What must England do to stand any chance of winning? "We'll certainly have to turn up," he said, with a meaningful glint in his eye.