Dylan Hartley determined to finish Six Nations tournament on a high

England captain returns from injury keen to stop Ireland from winning a Grand Slam

England’s Dylan Hartley: “We found out a lot about ourselves. Long term, looking at a World Cup, there is going to be some bumps on the road.” Photograph:  Adam Davy/PA Wire

England’s Dylan Hartley: “We found out a lot about ourselves. Long term, looking at a World Cup, there is going to be some bumps on the road.” Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire

 

Dylan Hartley is relying on the other Dylan’s immortal line about there being no success like failure and that failure is no success at all.

Hartley is hungry. Not for success or victory, he’s literally hungry. It’s lunchtime on Thursday and a sitting with all-too-familiar print journalists is the last leg of captaincy duties he does not appear to relish. Whenever a topic sits uncomfortably, the 31-year-old stares down the reporter, who gazes back, and repeats the question.

This is a wearily trodden road we glimpse in upon. It feels like theatre, the evil pantomime villain performing for the same gaggle who sliced and diced him after each transgression tallying 60 weeks of suspensions since gouging today’s team-mate James Haskell back in April 2007.

A history of violence is the clearest comparison to the greatest England captain of them all. Martin Johnson never got done for the eye interaction or biting (eight weeks for chowing down on Stephen Ferris’s finger in 2012) or abusing a referee (11 weeks for an incident with Wayne Barnes in the 2013 Premiership final) but punching (two weeks, Rory Best in 2012), elbowing and head-butting (four weeks, current under-study Jamie George in 2015) were regular enough exchanges when Johnson was in his pomp.

Both men did lead England to the Grand Slam. The Johnson comparison only becomes valid if the 2019 World Cup is won. It will command greatness and overshadow the bans (or as Eddie Jones might call them, the breaks). All will be forgiven when the Queen bestows the Knighthood.

Arise, Sir Dylan.

Deliver

Today should deliver the real Dylan Hartley, unmasked and let loose, because the determination of England to avoid a third successive defeat, the sacking of Twickenham and an Irish Grand Slam should provoke a bloody-minded response.

Success borne out of failure is what Hartley and England expect to achieve on St Patrick’s Day.

“The good thing about the group is we have experienced some great results, some good wins and some losses now. One thing we can’t do on the training field is replicate a loss. You can’t recreate this: you see how your team-mates react, how the group reacts and the way the team has responded has been fantastic.

“I am always coming out telling you guys this every week, and it is not bullshit, it is the truth, we focus on getting better, learning, improving. Off the back of a loss it is exactly the same. It just hurts a bit more.

“We found out a lot about ourselves. Long term, looking at a World Cup, there is going to be some bumps on the road. Good. These are lessons that we can’t recreate. It is not something I want to see happening all the time because it is not nice losing.”

After injuring himself during the Murrayfield malaise, therefore missing Le Crunch, Hartley is back. It’s the last game of the Six Nations and England have never lost a Test match at Twickenham under his leadership and, well, he can be as nasty as he likes and still be back in time for the next Test match that really matters (the All Blacks in November).

The real Dylan Hartley is almost certain to stand up today.

“I had to do a fitness test yesterday which was full training,” he laughed.

At Stade de France he sat amongst the English coaches.

“I’d rather watch it on TV because I could show a bit more emotion. We sat in the stand conscious of people around you – just frustrated because you always want to play obviously, whether it is selection or injury you always want to play. It was good to watch from the coach’s box. Seeing the constant messaging onto the field, just seeing the game from where the coaches sit was a good experience for me.”

Got a taste for it?

“No thanks.”

Last year Hartley brought an unbeaten English side to Dublin intent on repeating their 2016 Grand Slam. He was forced to collect the trophy following a clean defeat.

The relevancy of that moment now?

“Last year’s game?”

Yeah, against Ireland.

Embracing the challenge

“That’s long gone, mate.”

But surely . . .

“We learned from that and then we went to Argentina . . .” [George and Rory Best were selected to tour New Zealand with the Lions]

No lessons from Ireland embracing the challenge of playing the Six Nations champions?

“Eh, no.”

When the staring concluded, he added: “Everyone is motivated differently. Some players are motivated by that. I’m motivated by our two disappointments [in Edinburgh and Paris] and finishing the tournament on a high. I’m motivated by how do we show the rugby world that we are still a good team? You do that by beating the current Six Nations champions. Some people are motivated by other things. I can’t tell you how to get motivated, you got find your own way.”

Motivated by keeping the unbeaten record at Twickenham?

“That can’t help us.”

But you want it to defend it?

“But if we play away we value our away record.”

But that’s gone.

“What I am saying is you don’t treat one game with more respect than the other. That’s why we talk of the next game being the biggest. It’s important on all fronts – we want to finish the tournament strong, we don’t want Ireland to win a Grand Slam – it depends how you are motivated. Some people might be motivated by not losing the home record, some people might want to put in a performance for their family, for the fans. There are so many things you can add to this weekend’s game.”

The realisation that Ireland can complete the Grand Slam is not lost on him.

“Eddie talks about kicking stones, I go kicking stones, we all go kicking stones together . . . The response of the team has been brilliant. It shows we have the right people and are going in the right direction. I have no doubt about that.”

It’s suggested that the Jones viral video will assist Irish motivation. Hartley guffaws. “Ireland are coming motivated by a Grand Slam. They don’t need any more help. I’ve been in that camp. I know how that feels.”

Now, a year later, England could finish fifth in the table.

“Could finish second as well.”

Sure, but . . .

“You a pessimist?”

But is fifth acceptable?

“Well, we wanted to win the tournament.”

Where England finishes matters or is it all about winning?

“What’s that film? Talladega Nights, there’s a great quote in that, I’m not going to say it though.”

Go on.

“We want to finish strong and if we do the table will take care of itself.”

It ends.

“Lunchtime,” he bellows, happy to be playing and leading England again.

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