Dylan Hartley usually gives newspapers a wide berth, but as he spent last week at the England team headquarters in Surrey rather than on the dark side of Planet Zog, he could not help detecting just a whiff of pessimism concerning the immediate survival prospects of the red-rose pack. "Everyone thought we were going to be bullied by the Argentines," he says, grinning from ear to ear. "But we weren't bullied, were we? We won 80 per cent of the hits against a scrum rated the best in the world. I bet none of you saw that statistic coming."
At 23, the Northampton hooker is nothing more than a pup in front-row terms, but this has not stopped him being saddled with the responsibility of running the England scrum – a complex business involving timing, angles and the precise application of collective force that makes Jonny Wilkinson's therapeutic dabblings in quantum physics seem like mere child's play. So when Hartley's direct opponent, the granite-faced Mario Ledesma, popped out of the first set-piece like a jet-propelled periscope and found himself being penalised into the bargain, it was a moment to savour.
"When the referee reached the end of his 'crouch, touch, pause, engage' routine, Ledesma wasn't happy and didn't do the last bit," Hartley recalls. "Unfortunately for him, his props did. I thought 'Bugger it, let's get in there anyway'. He's a tough old boy, that Ledesma, but we did well there. It gave me a lot of confidence, winning the first decision against him."
As Hartley's line-out work also turned up trumps – "I underthrew one ball, but if I'm a little bit cheeky and blame it on Steve Borthwick's call, I can claim a 99 per cent success rate, which is another stat that will surprise people" – the two areas of his game that most concerned the England selectors appear to have been successfully addressed. Certainly, the scrum coach Graham Rowntree was quick to praise Hartley's technical accuracy as one of the more acceptable features of England's victory over the Pumas.
If such acceptables were disconcertingly thin on the ground, Hartley is not unduly worried. "I never read too much of what's written," he says, "but the gist of it this time appears to have been that we didn't play much in the way of entertaining rugby. I look at it like this: everyone would have felt a lot worse had we lost. You go out there to win, don't you? You do anything to win, whatever it takes. Winning is all that matters. You win at all costs."
If these views have little in common with the Corinthian ideal, he can hardly be condemned for subscribing to them: he was, after all, raised in a rugby environment where victory is both demanded and assumed. Born in Rotorua, in the North Island of New Zealand – the Maori heartland where England's tourists suffered such a desperate beating in 1998 that they were laughed out of town – he did not leave for this country until his mid-teens. Hartley rejects the idea that he is steeped in the old lore, saying: "We're talking a long time ago, and my life has changed completely." But a rugby upbringing in New Zealand still counts for something. What's bred in the bone, and all that. However much he may consider himself an Englishman, he can expect to be reminded of the genealogical facts of the matter when he faces his countrymen at Twickenham this afternoon. Even the current All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore – one of the strong, silent types; a man of the soil and something of a throwback to the 1960s, when New Zealand forwards were plucked straight from the farm – will be tempted to give it a mention, although when asked on Thursday about facing a New Zealander clad in English clothing, he could not have been more dismissive. "Can't say I know much about him," Hore said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I don't take much notice of other hookers, wherever they come from. Let's hope he enjoys the haka."
Whatever Hore might mutter in his opponent's ear today is likely to be returned with interest, for Hartley is not renowned for his monosyllabic approach to conversation in the darkened recesses. Yet he considers himself a reformed character. When a six-month ban for gouging in 2007 cost him a place in Brian Ashton's squad for that autumn's World Cup, the penny dropped immediately. Since returning to first-team rugby at Northampton, he has moderated what might euphemistically be called his temperamental exuberance, to the extent that Jim Mallinder, his director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens, appointed him captain at the start of the season. "Ever since that business back in '07 I've been a different player," Hartley says, "but not everyone believed me when I said I'd got that stuff out of my system. It's why I was so grateful to be awarded the captaincy, because by playing with such responsibility on my shoulders every week, I think I've proved to everyone that I've changed. I play hard, but fair: that's my mentality."
In refusing to take a backward step against one of world rugby's more intimidating front-row combinations last week, Hartley demonstrated that he was not easily fazed, and when pressed on his feelings ahead of this first competitive meeting with his fellow countrymen, he seems wholly unruffled. "People keep asking me about my New Zealand rugby upbringing, but basically, it was a game I played at school," he insists. "I can't comment about the All Black mindset or anything like that because I don't know. I haven't lived there since I was 16."
It was then that he left to visit relatives in Sussex – a move that led, in a meandering way, to international recognition. Three of the current All Black tour squad – the outside-half Mike Delaney, the lock Tom Donnelly and the flanker Liam Messam – went to the same Kaharoa school, which, as Hartley points out, is quite something. "Donnelly and Delaney were just about to leave when I arrived, but I knew Liam pretty well," he says. "If any of us were going to make the All Blacks, he was. When I was playing for the school, he was off round the world with the New Zealand sevens team. He had all the flash kit, the suntan, everything – damn him."
Neither Messam nor Delaney are involved this afternoon, but Donnelly will be out there doing the haka. How will Hartley react? "I understand it, I respect it and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," he replies. "But I can't allow myself to be distracted just because it's the All Blacks. That's when a player can go off-track and do stupid things. I've worked hard to tighten up my game in the areas that needed tightening, and that's what I'll concentrate on."Reuse content