Alan Quinlan: I would never defend some of Dylan Hartley’s crimes but dismissing him as a thug is stupid
Nobody knows the consequences of losing control on a rugby pitch better than I do
Northampton captain Dylan Hartley is shown a red card by referee JP Doyle during an Aviva Premiership game against Leicester Tigers in December. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It feels very strange to be looking forward to an England team coming to Dublin this weekend and not wanting to hate them. This is probably one of the most likeable England teams ever to come here. The credit has to go to Stuart Lancaster, who has changed the way English rugby is perceived during his time in charge.
Remember when he took over? Here’s what was in the news about the England rugby team at the time. Dwarf-throwing. Late-night drinking. Jumping off ferries. Hush money for a hotel chambermaid. Driving sponsors’ jeeps on the beach. Story after story that just made you think, “What a shower.”
But now it’s different. Lancaster has changed the whole complexion there. They seem grounded and together and humble because he’s made them clean up their act. His background is as a schoolteacher and he’s obviously imposed some discipline there. I’d nearly rather them as they were before – at least then we might be able to take advantage of any bit of arrogance they had!
Still, I know what people will say. What about Dylan Hartley? Isn’t he the exception? Suspension after suspension. Eye-gouging, biting, punching, elbowing, abusing the referee. Not exactly likeable carry-on.
It’s easy to criticise. Hartley has been hammered by everyone – press, public, everyone. And, you might think, rightly so. You can’t be doing things like that. You can’t be defending it either and I would never try. But I do think it’s worth trying to understand what causes a player to do those things.
It isn’t as easy as just saying he’s a thug and moving on. I’m sure plenty of people said the same about me when I was playing. But I know I wasn’t a thug or a scumbag or a dirty player. I know that 100 per cent. And I bet Dylan Hartley knows that about himself too.
People judge you on what they think they know about you. They see the way you play the game and decide for themselves what sort of person you are. But they have no idea how your mind works or what your personality is.
Here’s how it was for me. I was an abrasive player but I never went out to hurt anybody on a rugby field. I would have been a calm person off the field but when I was on it I went to a place where I was on the edge.
On the edge
People talk about playing on the edge without ever explaining what they are on the edge of. For me it was control. I never wanted to lose control but I knew I could be a better rugby player when I was fired up and when adrenaline was pumping through me. Being on the edge of control gave me energy. I knew it made me harder to play against and that the opposition would struggle to bend me to their will.
But that gave me a huge problem. When you know that about yourself, your conscious thought is to move away from the edge. I sat in more dressing-rooms before games and at half-times down the years warning myself not to get involved. Don’t do it, Quinny. Don’t go there. Don’t start shouting over your own players. Stay away from the referee.
It was constant. And it was bad for me. If you are there the whole time telling yourself what not to do, you’re bogging yourself down in negative energy. Even though you know it’s for a good reason, even though you’re certain that’s what you need to perform and be of use to your team. It’s such a fine line to try to walk.
I knew that being abrasive made me a tough opponent. I knew that aggression was a key part of what made me a good player and brought me up through the ranks with Munster to eventually play for Ireland. If I could get into a zone where everything else fell away apart from the next tackle or the next carry and if I could let go and fully commit to it, that’s what I was good at.
But control is the key. Everybody has their boiling point. Paul O’Connell is as abrasive and aggressive as I ever was but he has more control. I got too frustrated and went too far and cost my team and cost myself. But I’m very comfortable putting my hand on my heart and saying there was never a conscious decision to go out and hurt anybody.
That’s why I think it’s stupid just to write someone like Hartley off as a psycho. I was suspended three times in my career – twice for stamping, once for eye-gouging. Written down in black and white, I know that looks terrible. But I also know that I never went out with malicious intent towards anybody.
I was on a tour with Trevor Brennan and Peter Clohessy a couple of years ago, away with the Lions. We were all retired at this stage after careers where we’d had plenty of scrapes and done plenty of things we weren’t proud of. Trevor got up with a microphone at one stage and introduced us as having eight years of suspensions between us. He was exaggerating but it got a big roar anyway.
Hartley is almost up to a year of total suspensions now. I must say I have some empathy for him. Not for what he’s done but for what he’s cost himself. Missing a Lions tour because of indiscipline hurts only one person and it’s a lot to have to live with.
I remember watching him that time with Wayne Barnes and just recognising a guy who had lost the ability to think rationally about the situation he was in. In that moment, he had lost control. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he was doing, it was that he couldn’t stop himself doing what he was doing.
Just for that brief moment, nothing mattered to him other than abusing a referee he thought was doing him wrong. The outside world didn’t matter. He had gone to a place where there wasn’t a crowd of 50,000 around him, there were no TV cameras, there was nothing only him and Barnes.
And what he did was disgraceful. You can’t defend it. It’s like Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear. Totally mystifying, completely beyond the bounds of what you’d think can happen – if you’re talking rationally. But just as Tyson was completely detached from the moment when he bit that ear, I believe Hartley was detached from the moment with Wayne Barnes.
That doesn’t excuse anything and I wouldn’t advocate anything he’s done. But I understand that feeling. I’ve come in after games and sat in the dressing-room and had to ask my teammates what sort of game it was. I would sit there racking my brain to remember what happened in the first half and I wouldn’t be able to be sure until I saw the video later on.
You go to a zone where nothing matters but winning. You feel that every little thing that goes against you is a huge injustice. You live from moment to moment, detached from any wider picture. It’s actually quite a dangerous place to be in.
Hartley is a serious player. He’d have to be, otherwise he wouldn’t be worth the hassle. He is a great scrummager and he ticks all the boxes as a hooker. He’s tough, abrasive and a good option as a ball-carrier. He’s everything you would want in a hooker, bar the discipline. When he keeps his nose clean, he’s a huge asset for Northampton and England.
But guys like him walk a line. I know when I came back from my Lions suspension that I was so wary of getting involved in any pushing or shoving. I stayed the hell out of any situation that might get me in trouble. I was coming back from something that had a seriously negative effect on my life and I was so, so careful after it.
Hartley has to do the same. He has the right coach in Lancaster to help him along the way and I wish him well.
Just not on Sunday. I hope he has a stinker, obviously. Empathy has its limits, after all.