Six Nations: Dylan Hartley happy to be back in the England shirt
He has reclaimed his spot as England hooker and he doesn't plan to lose it again – or today's battle with France, he tells Chris Hewett
English gentlemen of various stripes – Henry V as imagined by Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, the Duke of Wellington, Alan Partridge – have had some ripe things to say about the French down the centuries, and when it comes to the rugby breed, no one has been riper than Brian Moore, that devoted controversialist who was once the beating heart of the red-rose scrum. Back in the days when a smack in the ear from Pascal Ondarts or Vincent Moscato was considered part and parcel of an afternoon's sport, the Harlequins hooker liked to get his retaliation in first by waxing lyrical in the build-up to the annual slugfest.
So it was that Moore, only marginally less combustible than he once was and wholly deserving of his reputation as a middle-aged enfant terrible of social media, materialised on the touchline at one of this week's England training sessions, having been invited to cast an expert eye over the set-piece shakedowns ahead of today's meeting with Les Bleus at Twickenham. Naturally enough, the current hooker Dylan Hartley fell into conversation with him. Equally naturally, he received more than he bargained for.
"During the scrummaging session, as we went through the 'set, touch, engage' stuff, you could see Brian grimacing, as though he wanted to be back in there," recalls the Northampton captain. "Then, when I asked him about life in the line-out when he was playing, he stood on my foot and put his hand across my face. It was a simple question… and I ended up with a sore toe."
According to Hartley, exchanges of cross-Channel pleasantries are a thing of the past. "You won't hear any of that stuff coming from our camp," he remarks. "I'm told about the things that went on in the 1980s and 90s, but there's no point going down that road nowadays because you'd be setting yourself up for a fall. And I won't be saying much on the pitch, either. I'm not good with the French language. 'Bonjour', 'bonsoir': that's about it."
Even so, there is something about Hartley, thoroughly modern as he may be with his acute sense of positioning and his flypaper handling, that is resolutely old school, to the extent that in a less cautious age – an age in which the occasional mischievous thought could be freely expressed rather than spin-doctored into oblivion – he would have been seriously good value in the build-up to a match like this evening's set-to with Thierry Dusautoir and company.
Almost his first words to this newspaper, back in the spring of 2007 when he was new to the Premiership and cut an odd figure with his playful-puppy demeanour and his tufty hair sprouting through an ill-fitting scrum cap, were wonderfully self-deprecating. "I've just had my arse kicked by the conditioning staff for being too fat," he said, "so I can't say I'm thinking too much about my international prospects." He was, and remains, a one-off.
But Hartley is more guarded nowadays, having learnt his fair share of lessons in the half-dozen years since he first registered on the red-rose radar, many of them of the harsh variety. We can leave to one side his many and varied crimes and misdemeanours, even though the details are inevitably resurrected and dissected by his critics whenever he happens to be a "news" player. The relevant lessons at this precise point in time are the ones he was taught by the French front-rowers in Paris a little over three years ago – not least because two of those front-rowers, the props Thomas Domingo and Nicolas Mas, will be at Twickenham today, large as life and twice as challenging.
In the 2010 game, Hartley and his tight-head prop, Dan Cole, found themselves in all manner of set-piece strife, to the extent that they were withdrawn halfway through the contest and replaced by Steve Thompson and David Wilson, who had expected to spend another 20-odd minutes on the bench, at the very least. To scrummaging aficionados it was the cruellest of moments, for neither Hartley nor Cole was wholly to blame. Tim Payne's problems on the loose-head side of the scrum meant the Catalan strongman Mas was able to drive his bullet head into Hartley's left cheek at every engagement – no one's idea of fun – while Cole was left to shoulder the entire weight of the Tricolore pack's diagonal surges.
Hartley blanches at the memory even now, but it does not take him long to recover his poise. "I don't see that happening to an England front row again," he says, quietly. "Not with this team. Not with the way we approach our scrummaging. We've spent a lot of time talking about the set piece this week and focused hard on what we want to achieve in that department. We know what the scrum means to the French: whoever they pick in their front row, they go at it with the same mentality, the same passion and the same skill. They pride themselves on their scrum and use it as a weapon. We feel the same way."
Rather than reflect on those events, he prefers to talk about last year's match in the same city – a game England won, against all expectations, scoring three memorable tries in the process. "That," says Hartley, warming to his chosen theme, "was all about our spirit. We were a new side back then, but there was something wonderfully dogged about us. I'm rooming with Owen Farrell [the England outside-half] at the moment and this week we watched the tape of the game over a cup of tea. Some of it, we couldn't work out. We couldn't quite understand how people found themselves in the positions they did, or what they were doing there.
"The good thing is that both of us said: 'We're a far better side now than we were then.' We're playing with so much more detail now. We have a better shape and a much greater understanding of our running lines. If we can play with the same spirit and add on all the pretty things we've been working on over the last few months, we can win this game, definitely."
And if England win, it should follow that Hartley wins too. As recently as last summer, he was the only hooker in town as far as Stuart Lancaster and his fellow coaches were concerned. During the tour of South Africa, he was understudied by the long-serving Lee Mears, then on the brink of international retirement. The next in line, Rob Webber, was on the long-term casualty list. That left the uncapped Leicester tyro Tom Youngs as his principal long-term rival.
That rivalry took on a "here and now" dimension when Hartley injured himself before the autumn internationals. Youngs, a tough little blighter with a subterranean centre of gravity that caused serious issues for would-be tacklers from across the southern hemisphere, made something of a name for himself in that series and held his place for the first tranche of Six Nations fixtures.
Hartley, not obviously blessed with the virtue of patience, had no option but to watch and wait. He did not find the process particularly enjoyable. "It's never easy, being on the bench," he admits. "But when it's happening to you, it's important to keep trusting yourself, to believe in yourself as a professional player. There's no point throwing your toys out and letting your standards drop. In my experience, the coaches are looking for a reaction from you. I hope I reacted positively."
By switching things around in selection to Hartley's advantage, Lancaster confirmed that in his view, the response was as positive as could be. The move makes sense. For all the promise shown by Youngs – and the former centre's success in establishing himself as a Test-class hooker has been startling, to say the least – the Northampton man is clearly the stronger option. A Lions tour of Australia beckons, and by the end of this tournament he may well have positioned himself as favourite for the Test berth.
Not that he is thinking too far past this evening's dark-night-in-a-back-alley meeting with the business end of a formidable French forward operation.
"I've had to bide my time and wait for my opportunity," he says. "Now, it's my shirt to lose." Judging by his tone, he is not planning on losing anything today. Certainly not the match, still less the jersey.
Stats magic: Hartley in numbers
2008 The hooker made his England bow against Pacific Islanders in 2008. He made his Six Nations debut the following spring.
68.18 England's win percentage in Six Nations matches with Hartley. in the side - winning 15 of 22 matches
44 Caps won for England, scoring one try – against New Zealand at Twickenham in 2010.
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