Time may be catching up with no-nonsense Dylan Hartley with Japan World Cup still a long way off

Paul Hayward
Dylan Hartley is England's No 2 - but for how much longer? - 2017 Getty Images

At a business event last year Eddie Jones was asked what he felt he needed to add to England’s rugby team when he first took over. He said: “A lot more Dylan Hartley.”

There has been quite a bit “less” Dylan Hartley in this Six Nations Championship, because the England captain has been replaced strikingly early in games by Jamie George, one of Jones’s so-called “finishers”, and England’s future at hooker. In Jones’s unsentimental world, though, there are finishers and finished.

Sympathy for Hartley is tempered by the knowledge that his slow start to the tournament was self-inflicted. A six-week ban for swinging an arm in a Champions Cup game for Northampton in December left him playing catch-up in an England squad with no room for stragglers, even if they happen to be the leader and talisman.

Dylan Hartley has led England to huge success Credit: REX FEATURES

In theory, all men are equal in Jones’s meritocracy, but Hartley has more credit than most. “A lot more Dylan Hartley” meant more aggression, edge, candour, and less politeness and identity. The qualities identified by Jones in the new captain were tied to the coach’s wish to leave the 2015 World Cup behind and focus ruthlessly on winning.

Hartley was the outlaw allowed back in – the recidivist Stuart Lancaster had given up on for disciplinary reasons. In Lancaster’s world, a rap sheet as long as Hartley’s was indicative of poor self-control. It was not the image of England rugby he was trying to project.

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If this seems moralistic, there was a more practical aspect. Lancaster thought players who acted on individual whim (a bite here, a swinging arm there) were a liability and lacked a sense of responsibility to the team.

Good intentions were of no interest to Jones. With England humiliated and bewildered, he assumed command with maximum licence to make any and all changes, to personnel and tone. The focus was only on winning the kind of games England had been losing. And when Hartley emerged blinking from the doghouse to replace Chris Robshaw as captain, it was noticeable how many senior figures in the game applauded the change in emphasis. No more Mr Nice Guy.

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But that was then, this is now, and 2017 will show whether Hartley was a transitional leader or Jones’s representative on the pitch all the way through to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

The most negative reading of his current standing is that he will seek to lead England to a record 19th Test win and second consecutive Grand Slam in Dublin on Saturday and then become past tense.

Pushing this logic, even his place on the Lions tour of New Zealand is in jeopardy, as coach Warren Gatland considers the alternative claims of George, Scotland’s Fraser Brown and Ken Owens, of Wales. However hard this is to imagine – a first Test without Hartley fronting-up the All Black pack? – performance level is bound to count for more than ruggedness, though mental strength will still count in his favour.

The numbers, though, are not favouring the Anglicised boy from Rotorua.

Hartley, 30, who has 83 caps, lasted 52 minutes against Scotland, 54 against France and 44 against Wales, when he seemed to disappear straight after coming back out. Plainly, George’s dynamism is an asset no England coach would want to hold back for too long, but a hooker should last more than 50 minutes, even in this age of rolling subs.

Jones’s official reason for hooking him so early is Hartley’s “bounce” time after tackles. “When they start to drop off and when they start getting slow off the ground – we have parameters for how quickly they get off the ground – we make a change,” the England coach says. “It’s got nothing to do with anything else.”

Jamie George is England's 'finisher' at hooker Credit: REX FEATURES

There has also been political turbulence, with Italy’s ruck-averse approach at Twickenham, which left Hartley at the forefront of an England team who appeared not to know the laws of the game. Later he said: “Hindsight is a bitch but if I could go back I would have seen what was happening earlier and I would have dealt with it.” He joked about replacing the Bible in his hotel room with a copy of rugby’s laws, which double-up as a cure for insomnia.

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If the Grand Slam is retained, Hartley will deserve his garland for Martin Johnson-esque leadership after the World Cup mortification, but there are no guarantees for him beyond the post-match craic in Dublin. Sixty weeks on the sidelines through suspension for eye gouging, biting, butting, swearing at a referee, striking and elbowing may finally have caught up with him when he returned for this Six Nations Championship below form.

Japan 2019 must seem a long way off to him, but the qualities Jones turned to so quickly may yet preserve him. How poignant, though, that Hartley was dropped from the 2015 World Cup squad for butting the “finisher”, Jamie George, who may now finish him off.

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