McGrath relishing battle with England's former bad boy Hartley

Northampton hooker is spearheading England surge having overcome disciplinary issues

Jack McGrath tackles Dylan Hartley in last seasons Six Nations clash at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jack McGrath tackles Dylan Hartley in last seasons Six Nations clash at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Earlier this year when the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph pejoratively asked if Dylan Hartley was really the man to captain England, we knew in our heart of hearts the answer must be yes.

Hartley was, before Eddie Jones gave two fingers to the rugby establishment with his nomination, known as the troubled New Zealand-born England hooker. Mr knob wearing the blessed red rose.

Ireland came to know him when he bit the finger of flanker Stephen Ferris and punched opposite hooker Rory Best. It wasn’t Ulster he was striking out against but the world.

By the time Jones used the tried and trusted child psychology of making the boldest boy on the team the captain, Hartley had punched, verbally abused, elbowed, eye-gouged and headbutted his way to an unparalleled sequence of suspensions that together added up to over a year of bans.

The longest of his career and his pièce de résistance, was a double eye-gouging incident on England teammate James Haskell which drew a 26-week ban and ruled Hartley out of the 2007 World Cup. But that was then for Northampton’s hooker. This is now.

“I think like a lot of players he has matured and has been given that opportunity again to be English captain and I don’t think he has put a foot out of line since,” says Leinster prop Jack McGrath of Hartley’s spotless 10 months of 2016.

Eradicate

“Like, some people are a bit mad when they are younger. It’s one of these things. He has grown out of it. Again I don’t know the guy but he has grown out of it. He’s shown that he can eradicate that from his game and it’s been really good for him because he has had a successful time since he has done that.

“You’re talking about things he’s done on the pitch. But rugby has proved there’s no place for that in the game and again I don’t know anything about him off the pitch. I assume you are talking about things on the pitch and there’s no room. But he’s got rid of it from his game.”

Rank stupidity on a regular basis has given way to Hartley the focused player. Whatever buttoned-up sensibilities were originally offended by Jones and his counter-thinking, Hartley has been at the front of an England surge this year.

Northampton have not had the same rise. They sit ninth in the Premiership table having won four of their 10 games. Europe more than the Premiership title is within their making now and there Hartley’s abrasive in-your-face style can hurt teams.

“I haven’t played against him a whole lot. But to watch him play, he doesn’t take a step backwards,” says McGrath.

“He leads from the front and guys follow. That’s the type of guy you want on your team. I’ve a lot of respect for him. He’s come back from whatever troubles he’s had and completely forgotten about it. You have got to give a guy respect for that and he’s a quality player as well.

Bread and butter

“He’s just a leader of men and people will follow him, so yeah it will be a good battle because his bread and butter will be the scrum and the lineout and around the breakdown. It will be good to go toe to toe against [that] calibre of player.”

Northampton are a scrum and maul side but to frame them so one dimensionally is to underestimate their ability in other areas. Kerry-born Munster outhalf JJ Hanrahan made the move to Franklin’s Gardens in 2015 and made his starting debut of the season last week in the centre against Leicester.

There are others: Luther Burrell, George Pisi, Ben Foden. But they are all coming off the beating by Leicester in the East Midlands derby.

“I remember when we came back to the Aviva it was 60 minutes of scrum and maul and we were just soaking up pressure,” says McGrath of the 2013 match, which Leinster lost 9-18.

“Fair play to them, they were very good at that and I don’t think much has changed. What I think has changed is they have brought in some dangerous guys, the likes of JJ Hanrahan. He can make a play from anywhere.

George North and even at the back of the scum [Louis] Picamoles all these guys. There’s a lot of experience there, Luther Burrell . . . there are a lot of dangers around the park and probably it’s something that they may not have had last time we played them.”

Those dangers, even if North has been ruled out. And also a hooker, who may not be the captain of the club, but who will play the match as a leader of the team.

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