Two days ago, Dylan Hartley could be found in front of his computer screen, mugging up on the exploits of… the great basketball player Michael Jordan, one of his heroes.
"Seeing what it meant to him to win things: how much time and perseverance he put in, and how much pain he went through, to reach the top and stay there – I find that mindset very interesting," explained the England hooker. Especially, he added with a wistful smile, as he had yet to lay his own front-rower's hands on any of rugby's glittering prizes.
Those who think the Northampton captain might have been better employed viewing footage of last year's Six Nations scrummaging conflict with Wales in Cardiff – a battle within a battle that went the way of the home side, along with every other phase of the game – are entitled to their opinion, but as the set-piece protocols have changed completely in the space of 12 months, Hartley can surely be forgiven. "What did we learn technically from that match? Nothing, really, because the laws are different and the scrum has developed so much," he said.
If there were things taken on board as a result of that gruesome defeat at the Millennium Stadium, they were of the "bigger picture" variety, according to England's most experienced forward. "From our point of view, that was the complete, all-round bad performance," he said. "I don't think you've seen anything like that from us since, so it's been good to carry it around in the back of the mind, for fear of it happening again.
"Against Wales last year, we went down by a few scores and capitulated. If you look at the All Blacks game before Christmas and the France game at the start of this tournament, we conceded a lot of points but fought our way back into it. That's a lesson we've definitely learnt."
Hartley has some history with the Welsh, whom he puts in a class of their own when it comes to generating anti-English sentiment. Back in 2011, the last time England beat them in a Six Nations fixture, he was the target of one of Warren Gatland's verbal grenades: a carefully directed attack designed to destabilise one of the more combustible characters in the red rose set-up.
If the calculated nature of the criticism took some people aback – not least because Gatland shares a New Zealand heritage with his target and had been a hooker himself – it merely served to intensify Hartley's desire. That night in Cardiff, he was nothing short of terrific.
Plenty has happened since. Gatland, who has always rated his fellow countryman if truth be told, selected him for last summer's British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, only to lose him in a thick cloud of disciplinary controversy. Hartley's startling dismissal during the Premiership final between Northampton and Leicester at Twickenham, for venting his spleen in the direction of the referee Wayne Barnes, left him contemplating the ruins of bright sporting career rather than a three-Test series with the Wallabies.
There was no guarantee at the time that he would set about the necessary rebuilding work, but after due deliberation and many conversations with the people he most trusts, he decided to give it another go.
"I'm proud of the way he has bounced back," said Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach. "Proud of the humility he's shown, of the way he has gone about learning from his mistakes.
"We haven't seen the best of him yet – there are still parts of his game that need focusing on – but he's showing great leadership and he's an important figure in this camp. I spoke to him over the weekend of the final and again when I returned from the Lions tour. Was there a doubt as to whether he would get over it? Yeah, I think there was. If you asked him, he'd tell you he was doubting himself at that time. But he's grown and grown since then and he's in a good place. If you look at the way he leads his club and the way he plays for us, it's clear he's a dependable figure."
If Hartley has achieved bogeyman status in Welsh eyes, just as the equally fiery Brian Moore did before him, it is unlikely to cost him a moment's sleep. The more volatile the occasion, the more he relishes it. Indeed, he puts the England-Wales fixture in an extra-special category of rugby rivalries, alongside Test matches between the All Blacks and the Wallabies and the annual State of Origin rugby league rumbles in Australia.
"There's probably something similar in other sports but rugby has that physical element, which means you can't shy away from confrontation," he said. "The moment you concede, it's obvious to everyone. This is being talked up as an emotional revenge game for us after last year. We haven't talked about that as a group, but I think the rivalry is good, not just for the players but for everyone. Certainly, I'm enjoying and cherishing the fact that I'm here." Is he proud of himself for clawing his way back into Test contention, just as Rowntree is proud of him? "I don't know," he replied. "In the end, what else are you supposed to do? You just get on with it."
Brown back: Scotland recall captain
Scotland head coach Scott Johnson claims he has recalled captain Kelly Brown for Saturday's Six Nations game against France because his team-mates "need" him.
The flanker was dumped out of the squad before the England game last month.
"I asked him to improve on some things and he is certainly well on the way to doing that," Johnson said.Reuse content