Six Nations: England's Dylan Hartley takes heart from the new generation
It still feels odd to seek out Dylan Hartley as the greybeard of the England piece but the Northampton hooker and captain is his country’s most capped player and will remain so until next year’s World Cup and beyond, barring an unforeseen recall for Toby Flood or Jonny Wilkinson (only kidding).
There was a need to gain a little perspective after England had routed a Scotland team weak of resolve and questionably selected, with the next opponents – Ireland on Saturday week and Wales on Sunday 9 March, both at Twickenham – bound to be substantially more threatening. Will Luther Burrell stroll past Jonny Sexton as easily as he did Duncan Weir for England’s opening try at Murrayfield? Will Mike Brown, Jonny May and Jack Nowell continue their promising impression of a back-three combination of all the talents when they clash with such proven forces of nature as Rob Kearney and George North?
Given that Burrell, May and Nowell have just seven caps between them, and might not have been playing at all if Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde and Christian Wade had been fit, it was unsurprising that Hartley, the 52-times capped hooker and Northampton captain, hailed their precocity above any rash claims to imminent greatness.
“The way we controlled the game was pleasing,” said Hartley, “constantly putting the pressure on Scotland, forcing them to get out of their half and then getting people like Billy Vunipola running off their clearance kicks. We scored 20 points, but I’m sure we’ll look at the video and say, ‘why haven’t we scored 30, why haven’t we scored two more tries?’ That’s good, we can have a week off, train, relax and then move on and play Ireland, and try and impose some of the things we’ve learnt.”
Next for Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees – the latter has nine caps, Vunipola six – is a tête-à-tête with the world’s longest-serving Test centre partnership, Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy. “Yes, but our lads are battle-hardened,” said Hartley. “Luther’s played Brian a couple of times in the Heineken Cup. Brian O’Driscoll’s fantastic, he’s an iconic Six Nations player, but Luther is on fire at the moment. He’s thriving on the experience and I think it’s brilliant.
“These young players come in, and no one’s holding back, are they? Look at Jack Nowell and Jonny May – fantastic. Maybe against France [in England’s previous match], that opening bit of confusion when Jack dropped the ball eased him in. Now we’re well into it. It’s international rugby, you can’t dip your foot in, you’ve got to bomb in the pool, otherwise you miss out and before you know it, the Six Nations is over.”
The post-match catch-ups were conducted in a marquee that felt like the wedding reception from hell. Scott Johnson, the interim Scotland head coach with a reputation for witty one-liners, played the father of the bride role with an entirely joke-free speech that dwelt on the naïveté of his youngsters. Kelly Brown, who might have been the best man as Scotland’s captain and back-row totem, had been dropped and did not even turn up, staying at home in London instead. All around there were big young men in suits and ties wondering where the booze was. The ones from “the other side of the family” wore smiles while their Scottish cousins bore the haunted look of forebears forever beating the English back at the border.
All the while rain teemed down on the tent roof, making it sometimes difficult to hear Hartley and friends say the hosts had done a marvellous job of looking after them, but that they hoped to put on a much better show when the Irish are England’s guests.
“I can’t wait to get back to Twickenham, knowing we’ll be there for two games,” said Hartley. “The crowd in the autumn was the best I’ve ever played in front of. Having that force behind the team, that belief, that support, can really help this team.”
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