Dylan Hartley is in the dark over Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions selection next week, but insists he will be fresh and in form if called upon for the “ultimate privilege” of touring his native New Zealand.
Hooker Hartley goes head-to-head with England squad-mate Jamie George as Northampton Saints face Saracens in Milton Keynes on Sunday, just three days before Gatland’s party is announced.
That tussle excites him. Although the 31-year-old missed out on a series win over Australia four years ago when he was banned following a red card for dissent in the Premiership final – after being picked in the initial 37-man group – he seemed phlegmatic over what could be his final chance to represent the Lions.
“I think it is the ultimate privilege for any players from the British Isles,” he said. “To go would be one hell of an experience I am sure, from what I have heard from previous tours. For the guys that do make the tour it will be the trip of a lifetime.
“I am not counting my chickens and I am not getting my hopes up because in a week’s time it could all be taken away. It is one of those things. It is around the corner, you know it is around the corner. It is not something I am overly thinking about or worrying about. I am just thinking about week to week.
“I have [faced] a good line of hookers [in succession]. I have had Tom Youngs, Tommy Taylor last week. I could have Jamie George this week then Luke Cowan-Dickie the next. They just don’t stop coming so I am just enjoying the games. That is uncontrollable, that stuff [the Lions]. I can’t comment on it – I don’t know what is happening. Either way I am going to be in a good place wherever I am this summer.”
Growing up in New Zealand, Hartley became aware of the Lions thanks to a black and white photo of his father as a schoolboy with touring players. He thinks the snap dates back to 1966. His dad would have been 10.
Half a century on, Hartley refuses to view next Wednesday as a defining moment in his career. Ironically, given it was a clash with George that cost him his place in Stuart Lancaster’s 2015 World Cup squad, he believes the only “unfinished business” he has is with Eddie Jones’ side.
“There are still things I want to do in an England shirt,” he said. “There is unfinished business there with the development of the team and where that is going. To be part of that is, in terms of ambition, is where I want to be.
“The Lions is just a bonus. The Six Nations has been played. However my form was, however I played, however I think, however you think, whatever the coaches and selectors think – they are relevant, everything else is irrelevant. That has been done. All can I do now is play well at the weekend for Saints and see what happens next week.”
George’s dynamic displays among Jones’ prominent replacements have sent the Saracen firmly into Lions contention. While saluting a “top guy and a team man” – and confessing “I’m not sure I could make as good an impact as Jamie George” from the bench – lineout specialist Hartley also reinforced his own credentials.
“I do other things,” he added. “I might not make 20 carries a game but I clear out rucks, I make tackles. And someone has to clear out rucks. But, as a hooker, it’s always been coached to me – by all my coaches – that what they expect first and foremost from me is excellence at set piece. That is something I pride myself on.”
Taking a home fixture to Stadium mk, Saints find themselves in a scrap for sixth place and automatic Champions Cup qualification. On the back of two high-scoring but agonisingly close defeats to Leicester and Wasps, Jim Mallinder’s men are hoping for more composure in the final stages.
“Against Leicester we had three golden opportunities to score tries,” Hartley finished. “It came down to a foot in touch or forcing an offload, these sorts of things. Last week, in the dying stages of the games, how many chances did we give them to get back into our half or get field position? How many times did we give away penalties at the maul to let them keep coming back?
“There is always learning, and that’s the story of our season – we’ve been close, but we haven’t quite got over the line.”