England hookers have famously enjoyed success in Paris by making the entente as uncordial as possible. Brian “the pitbull” Moore drove some heavily built Frenchmen to tears during an unforgettable Parc des Princes punch-up in the 1990s, while Mark “Ronnie” Regan, after another England victory in 2008, was described as a “grotesque clown” by the then France coach, Marc Lièvremont (“I objected to the word ‘grotesque’,” is Regan’s grinning recollection).
So it may be a disappointment to some that Dylan Hartley’s approach to the always theatrical front-row confrontation is avowedly angelic. “There is no mileage in winding the French up because you just set yourself up for a fall,” says England’s most-capped squad member. “The biggest way of hurting someone is pushing them back five metres. Mentally that’s very demoralising. And the days of the big enforcers have gone. You can’t just punch anyone any more. As soon as you get tied up in one-on-one battles, you’re adding nothing to the team.”
RIP the dark arts, it would seem. Hartley says there are too many cameras around, for starters. “Look at my track record, you can’t do anything!” he points out, using humour to deflect the usual questions (though, intriguingly, they were mostly left unspoken) about his past bans for gouging, biting and verbal abuse of a referee.
The truth is there will still be the sly tug, pinch in the privates or cross word that will never reach the spectators’ eyes and ears at the Stade de France next Saturday.
Equally, it has been heartening to see the 27-year-old Hartley much more mature in his dealings with opponents and referees this season. He quotes “a perfect example” from the Premiership, in which he has captained Northampton to vying with Saracens for top place. Northampton’s only loss in the league was at Gloucester in September when the referee Martin Fox made a couple of controversial decisions. Northampton went on to meet Bath at Franklin’s Gardens, and Fox had to replace the injured referee, Luke Pearce. “So Martin comes on and gets a big boo from the crowd,” Hartley recalls, “but I put an arm around him, gave him a smile and welcomed him. You can’t hold grudges, can you?”
The other reason for avoiding tomfoolery is the trial laws obliging hookers to concentrate on performing the action in the scrum that gave them their name. Again, Hartley has a smile – “striking is not that hard – the ball comes in and you kick it with your right foot” – but he in no way minimises the value of dominance, especially on the opposition put-in. “If I am up against a real heavy scrum, I will put my two feet on the deck and try and push over the ball. Talking about that first scrum, there is no point in being all fired up and thinking ‘we’re going to smash it’. All of a sudden you’ve given a free-kick because you’ve gone early. You do not want to get the referee thinking you are pushing your luck by bending the laws.”
Unusually, three of England’s remaining Championship matches will be refereed by Frenchmen – Jérôme Garcès, Romain Poite and Pascal Gaüzère – with Craig Joubert of South Africa handling Ireland’s visit to Twickenham on the Championship’s middle weekend.
By then England will either be striding boldly with two wins and a team vested with more public backing and self-belief than any wearing the red rose since the 2003 World Cup, or they will be contemplating an 11th year in a row with no Grand Slam.
In Paris the whistler will be Wales’s Nigel Owens – occasionally too chatty at scrum time, but sharing with his Gallic counterparts a reputation for empathy with a strong scrummaging pack. “As a scrummaging unit the French are big and formidable,” says Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach. “Three of the Toulouse pack could be starting and we saw Saracens with quite a few England players finding it hard work against them recently.” Lancaster lists the ages of his forwards – Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Henry Thomas, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola are all under 25 – and you wonder at their suitability for the battle.
Then you remember Paris in 2012, when England’s defence and counter- attack ripped France asunder, scoring three tries to one in a 24-22 win. Hartley played in that match, and in five others against the French among his 50 Tests, including the 12-10 loss in 2010 when England’s front row had a rotten evening and he was substituted at half-time.
Hartley has, it is fair to say, just about seen it all. “The 2012 Six Nations was Stuart’s first,” he says. “Now we have come on as a team, we have a lot of structure to how we play and we can go to France with a bigger armoury – which is scarier, because two years ago we had no kind of pressure. If we do not get this match right, the rest of the campaign falls on its arse.”
The Hartley dossier
Team: Northampton Saints
Height: 1.85m (6’1”)
Weight: 110kg (17st 4lb)
April 2007: Banned for 26 weeks for eye-gouging Wasps forwards James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor.
March 2012: Banned for eight weeks for biting Ireland forward Stephen Ferris in Six Nations match.
December 2012: Banned for two weeks for punching Ulster hooker Rory Best in a Heineken Cup match.
May 2013: Sent off in the Aviva Premiership final and banned for 11 weeks after being found guilty of verbally abusing a match official Wayne Barnes.