There is a theory about hookers, and it goes like this: a man cannot hope to make a serious reputation for himself in the middle of the front row unless his talent for talking a good game is at least as highly developed as his ability to play one.
Brian Moore never pretended to be the world's greatest linguist, but he could spout four-lettered insults in every tongue known to man, from French to Ancient Hittite. Sean Fitzpatrick? The man never shut up. Phil Kearns? Likewise. And then there was Mark Regan, of whom the World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit famously said: "He spoke to me more in two matches than my wife has in 10 years."
So where does this leave the New Zealand-born Dylan Hartley, current fulcrum of the England pack and a man seemingly determined to buck the trend. "I'm not witty enough to get involved in all that," he insists. "I'm always being hammered in the banter department, usually by Chris Ashton." Does this mean the Regan approach to competitive camaraderie is entirely foreign to him? Hartley grimaces. "The first time I went up against him, he just looked at me and said: 'Who the fuck are you?' I couldn't think of anything to say."
If the poor lad cannot recall the precise details of his own name when politely asked for it by a fellow member of the front-row union, maybe he is right to button his lip and leave the Jimmy Carr routine to his opponents. Not that he could get a word in edgeways these days, even if he wished to do so. So many people are talking about Hartley at the moment, there is barely enough space for Hartley to talk about himself, let alone anyone else.
It was Hartley's fellow north-island New Zealander – and a career hooker to boot – who set the ball rolling. Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, piped up a couple of weeks before the opening Six Nations game in Cardiff, laying into Hartley about his dodgy line-out throwing before going on to question his courage, integrity and just about everything else, leaving aside his personal hygiene. This week, the Scotland coach, Andy Robinson, picked up the ball and ran with it, accusing Hartley of "milking" penalties by standing up at the scrum.
"I don't know where Andy got that from," the Northampton captain sighs. "I've been concentrating on keeping my head down. I'm used to people trying to wind me up. When you play in my position, you get it coming at you all the time during a game. If it's been happening off the field too during this tournament, I think I've answered my critics."
According to Regan, he has gone about answering them in the best possible way. "He's silenced them with his performances on the field," says the man who, according to the best available evidence, was never silenced by anyone. "Dylan has decided to do his talking on the pitch, and it's the right road for him to take. I think he was under some pressure following the autumn series, when the England pack struggled against the Boks, but he's reacted extremely positively, to the extent that if there was a Lions tour this summer, he'd be on it, challenging hard for a Test place.
"Actually, I see a little bit of myself in him. As well as being an energetic player with a good set of skills, he's also a fighter. You need a bit of that as a hooker, and it came out in him, in a really good way, down in Wales. I had to put up with a lot of rubbish from opposing coaches during my own career. Jake White of South Africa had a go; Marc Lièvremont of France went after me; the whole Australian coaching team tried it on during the 2007 World Cup. And where did it get them, all that 'Keep an eye on Regan, he's up to no good' stuff? Nowhere. I don't know why they bothered. Daft, the lot of them. Why would you pick on a player, knowing that he's bound to play better as a result? Whenever it happened, I'd say to myself, 'Just the job. I'm all over this like a rash'.
"When Warren Gatland said what he said about Dylan, I initially thought, 'Well, it's one New Zealander to another, so let 'em get on with it'. But as long as Dylan has an England shirt on his back, I'll look on him as one of us and be on his side." Just as he wasn't when the two men encountered each other on the field of play, according to Hartley's story. Regan laughs. "Yes, I remember that quite well," he says. "Dylan's account is perfectly accurate."
If Hartley's performance at the Millennium Stadium – a 100 per cent return from his line-out throwing, an aggressive scrummaging display, no sparing of himself in the loose, no loss of temper – was top-notch, his display against France last time out was even better. No hooker in the British Isles has safer hands or a wider range of footballing gifts. Some of the passes he gathers in the heavy traffic, with tacklers clattering him from all angles, beggar belief. Regan is right: a Lions Test tomorrow would pitch Hartley against Matthew Rees of Wales, who played the last two Tests against South Africa in 2009 and played them extremely well. Much to the naturalised Englishman's credit, selection would be a close call.
Few expect tomorrow afternoon's Calcutta Cup meeting with Scotland to be particularly close, and it is this, more than anything, that gives Hartley cause for concern. "I wouldn't say I know all the history between the two countries, but as I've watched Braveheart I understand a bit of it," he says. "I think they'll be very competitive. Last year's drawn game at Murrayfield was a pretty ugly one, with a lot of trouble in the scrums, and while we have a referee tomorrow who's among the best in that area and tends to reward the dominant team [Romain Poite, the highly regarded Frenchman] they pose a threat up front, definitely. Their loose-head prop, Allan Jacobsen, is very good technically, and he could make Dan Cole's day a long one if we don't get it right.
"The good thing is that there's so little chopping and changing in selection now. It means someone like Alex Corbisiero [the new loose-head prop from London Irish, in for the injured Andrew Sheridan] can fit nicely into a settled unit. He's done brilliantly in his two games so far. It was a big ask, getting called up the day before the Italy game and going straight in against Martin Castrogiovanni, but he performed really well, and then backed it up against the French. Everyone said they were coming for us in the set piece, but it didn't happen that way. It's not often you see William Servat and Nicolas Mas being 'popped' in a scrum. A big part of that was down to Alex."
Just as a big part of England's improvement up front is down to Hartley and his dynamism. Northampton depend on him too, far more than is healthy for them, and it is no coincidence that in the absence of their captain – the last game Hartley played at club level was the tremendous Heineken Cup victory over Castres in France – they have lost matches right, left and centre and dropped down the Premiership table like a stone.
"There's a bit of me that wants to be there, to be a part of what the club's going through," says the hooker. "At the same time, I want to keep doing a good job here with England. On my days off, I go back to Franklin's Gardens and watch training, sit in on a meeting or two, do what I can. But there's not much I can do of a practical nature and it's not for me to comment too much on what's happening. It's for the people playing to sort out on the field."
Hartley, very much a marked man after his long ban for gouging in 2007, has sorted himself out more successfully than anyone thought likely. Those clubs planning on beating Northampton had better crack on with it, because when the captain returns in a fortnight's time, they will be nobody's idea of a pushover.
Criticism of Hartley during this Six Nations Championship:
*Dylan always seems to have a lot to say for himself. Some of what he said was responsible for Richie Rees being banned, yet he wasn't prepared to step outside with Gareth Williams. I saw him go to pieces at Leicester. It shows people crack under pressure. It's another case of a Kiwi choking on the big occasion.
Wales coach Warren Gatland
*England want the scrums to be square and it is important that the scrums are not stood up. I believe Hartley does that sometimes – either to milk penalties or to make the ref think the defending side are going backwards when they are not.
Scotland coach Andy RobinsonReuse content