Hartley still happy to throw caution to wind and rain
Hooker is not haunted by line-out trouble against Irish as fire and brimstone beckon in Calcutta Cup clash
Sunday 07 March 2010
Dylan Hartley would do well in front of the Chilcot Inquiry. "Why is it that everyone wants to beat England?" the New Zealand-born hooker asked, with summer strawberry sweetness, as he took questions about next week's Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. If Hartley does not know by now, after 17 months and 17 caps wearing the English red rose, he will find out amid the tartan tempest unique to the biennial trip to Edinburgh.
Perhaps in a week when the Rugby Football Union laid the blame everywhere but at their own door for the row with Stade Français over the release of James Haskell, this was just Hartley adding to the evasive action. The elephant in the room regarding Haskell is what it says about the sorry state of England, who have more players than any country on the planet yet are so jittery at giving one of them leeway to go back to his club.
When it was pointed out to Hartley that England could claim useful bragging rights next Saturday, given they meet Scotland only once more before a supremely crucial World Cup pool match in New Zealand in September 2011, he twinkled and claimed ignorance of the fixtures. "The World Cup's so far away," he said. "Though it would help not to be playing against the unknown."
No one expects the average international player – or even a very good one, as Hartley's recent performances are marking him out to be – to carry every statistic and past result in his head. These men live in the moment and mostly for good reason.
However, not all history is bunk. England have a terrible habit of tripping over their own feet in Edinburgh, with slack-jawed players emerging from a chastening 80 minutes, often in the wind and the rain, to say: "Gadzooks, we had no idea it was going to be like that."
England's losses in 2000, 2006 and 2008 featured a pathetic inability to locate a Plan B in the face of Scottish fire and brimstone. Blame the coach? Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton in turn were each felled by the kilted cosh.
"Both teams will be desperate to win," said Hartley. "I've played at Murrayfield once before, a club game against Borders, in front of about 50 people. I don't know much about the history. It's just another big game." So will the wind-up texts be flying back and forth with his Northampton club-mate Euan Murray, the Scotland tighthead prop? "No, Euan's a Scotsman, he's too tight to text." Well, it was an insight of sorts.
A selective withdrawal from the memory bank might just do Martin Johnson some good this week when his critics are questioning ever more stridently what it is that the England manager does. He could run some footage of Lawrence Dallaglio's hubristic try in 2000 before Duncan Hodge splashed through a giant puddle to win it for Scotland and a crestfallen Matt Dawson "forgot" to pick up the championship trophy.
Or of the quintessentially big English pack, including Steve Borthwick, being beaten in the tryless match of 2006. Or two years ago, when Jonny Wilkinson, who has Toby Flood as a rival for his starting spot this time, lost the plot in a rainstorm.
Robinson, of course, is in the blue corner now. Scotland's coach will have pored over the weaknesses as England's latest attempt at a first Grand Slam since 2003 went west last weekend with a 20-16 defeat to Ireland. And this is where Hartley was happy to argue the toss.
Referring to a sequence of four lost line-out throws as Johnson suffered his first championship defeat at Twickenham, as player or manager, since 1997, Hartley said: "We went through a bad patch. Ireland had smart players and when it was bucketing down with rain they put the ball out and put the pressure on.
"The previous week against Italy, I was poor and held my hand up. But you can't point the finger [solely] at me for last week. It was a collective thing – a mislift, a poor call, one throw I did which was too hard in wet conditions. As a maturing player, it is kind of hard, when you miss one, miss two, miss three. At the fourth one you think: 'Holy shit, what's going on here?' To come back and start hitting them again was a good sign."
A misfiring line-out would be a signpost to Scotland taking the high road. And Hartley knows that the scrum will be tough too. That's where he will lock cauliflower ears with Murray. "He's the ultimate professional and one of the best in the world at what he does," said Hartley. "He's a role model for me, the way he trains and lives his life, and he's always on at me to get better. Ross Ford at hooker [for Scotland] is a big boy. England have been scrummaging well in recent weeks."
That is true, but England need to whistle up the continuity between forwards and backs which was missing from those Caledonian cock-ups of the past, just when the current side are missing it too.
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