Former England captain Hartley believes Eddie Jones’ men can step towards their very best through a “killer instinct” mentality and intense physical onslaught against the All Blacks.
England levelled their win-loss record for 2022 at five apiece with last weekend’s 52-13 victory over Japan, but will face the ultimate acid test against this weekend, and ex hooker Hartley believes victory against Ian Foster’s resurgent New Zealand would go a long way to quieting any dissenting voices on a mixed year on the results front.
“These big games and occasions provide the big moments, the moments where those world-class players will step up and perform – because there are world-class players within that group,” Hartley told Standard Sport. “There’s been a lot of questions asked of England, with their form at five wins and five losses this year.
“So if there ever were a game to swing the balance to six-five, especially with the scalp that’s on offer against New Zealand, that would shut a whole lot of people up!
“The All Blacks have had a stuttering season by their standards, losing in Christchurch to Argentina, as well as losses to South Africa and Australia, and notably losing a series to Ireland in their own backyard.
“But their recent form indicates they’re not going away from being the class act we know they can be; they’ve just won six on the bounce so will come to Twickenham confident. They have been far more clinical, they have got a great balance to their game, and that all-out All Blacks threat of being able to punish a side from anywhere on the field at any minute of the game.
“I see two teams people are asking a lot of questions of, and whoever wins it will silence a lot of critics. So this is the game of the tournament for me; the barometer of where this developing England side are at.
“In regards to development and improvement, my favourite of England’s tries against Japan was Ellis Genge’s try. Kyle Sinckler goes direct, hard and confrontational onto the ball resulting in a gain-line win, and without letting the defence recover Ellis Genge repeats with the same intent, hits the line hard resulting in five points.
“One point of focus for England has been converting territory into points, they have been getting into the opposition 22 but lacked that killer instinct to just kick the door down and score the try. They’ve been trying to unlock the door, trying to pick holes in the defence.
“I go back to my time with Eddie, it was all about busting the door down; make them tackle you, don’t let them recover. Genge’s try was England playing to their strengths, uncompromising, direct, in your face.”
Hartley won 97 caps in a 10-year Test career, to add to 14 years and 251 games with Northampton Saints. The 36-year-old was Jones’ first England captain, and helped define a gritty, potent tone for the Australian’s tenure.
Hartley’s formative years in New Zealand give him a rare perspective of performing the Haka in his youth, but also facing the phenomenon in England colours. When New Zealand lay down that showpiece pre-match challenge to England tomorrow, Hartley’s blood will start pumping – and he believes rugby as a sport should see things the same way.
“I grew up with the Haka, I get very excited and the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I see it,” said Hartley, speaking as an Amazon Prime Video pundit. “I get the emotion of the lived experience. I’ve performed multiple Hakas and for me, it’s a powerful experience that promotes strength, unity and pride.
“The best response and respect you can give to the Haka is by bringing your best self, you accept the challenge that has been laid before you and respond by playing unbelievably hard.
“I think some people can see respect as a subservient manner but this is a challenge. Owen Farrell’s reaction in 2019 followed by his performance for me is a beautiful example of how to accept the challenge.
“I am a big advocate for the showmanship of the Haka, it puts rugby and New Zealand on the map, it gives our sport identity. That’s not monetising an identity or a culture, it just brings identity, colour and personality to the game.”
Dylan Hartley will be covering tomorrow’s Autumn Nations Series match between England and New Zealand at 5.30pm exclusively live on Prime Video, with coverage starting from 4.30pm.