Sinner Hartley converted into leading Saint


RUGBY: GAVIN CUMMISKEYon the pugnacious Kiwi-born hooker who came to England as a tearaway prop and became a Northampton and Red Rose stalwart

Confrontational (Adjective) Definition: 1. The act of confronting or the state of being confronted, especially a meeting face to face.

2. Behaving in a way that shows you want to have an argument or fight with someone

Also see: Dylan Hartley.

THE NORTHAMPTON Saints captain first appeared on an Irish radar in February 2007. It was an A international up in Ravenhill that ensured the Rotorua-born hooker became England qualified. His mother Caroline is English but any doubt about Hartley’s commitment to the Red Rose was quelled when he initiated an early scrap with opposite number Frankie Sheahan.

Despite facing a decent Ireland side, which included current Saints number eight Roger Wilson, the Saxons ran amok, with Hartley barrelling over for the first of four tries.

Another prominent figure that evening was Shane Geraghty, who was also pinning his colours to the English mast despite his father hailing from Mayo.

This profile would have probably been about Geraghty if his career had not stalled since leaving London Irish for Northampton two seasons ago. However, if Leinster get two scores clear entering the last 10 minutes on Saturday, Saints coach Jim Mallinder will spring the outhalf, just as he did, albeit to little impact, in Saturday’s wincingly bruising defeat to the Leicester Tigers in the Premiership semi-final.

The manner in which Hartley puts himself about has a lot to do with Mallinder anointing him club captain two years ago, aged just 23.

The journey up to that point is a story about a Kiwi boy becoming an English man under the media’s glare. This is mainly down to two moments of skulduggery in one game that he paid dearly for.

Former Ulster and Ireland hooker Paul Shields is the Saints team manager but shared the number two jersey with Hartley during the Saints’ road to Damascus 2007/08 season down in Division One.

“Dylan has been in the UK since he was 16 and on his own. He has really not had parental guidance so everything has been a big learning curve,” said Shields.

Hartley landed in East Sussex as a teenager to visit cousins and was keen to test himself on the local rugby paddocks.

A loosehead prop back then, he was not really mapped in New Zealand but his abrasive style made enough of an impression for a permanent move to England, where he entered the Beacon Rugby Academy.

That led to English underage honours and a contract with the Worcester Warriors.

In 2005, Northampton came looking for a hooker in the Steve Thompson mould. Then director of rugby, and former Scotland flanker Budge Pountney is credited with transforming him into a fully-fledged hooker but Northampton forwards coach Dorian West has since polished the rough edges.

A few weeks after lining out for the Saxons in Belfast, Hartley was being widely tipped to break into the full national squad and travel to the rugby world cup in France. But in April 2007 came a 26-week ban for eye-gouging Johnny O’Connor and James Haskell in a Premiership match against London Wasps.

Branded a gouger, every gobby forward he faced on his eventual return was keen to remind him. Not that Hartley doesn’t enjoy the chats himself, but opponents were constantly trying to draw him into a scuffle, knowing subconsciously, referees were likely to penalise the guy with a record.

It was a long road to redemption, alright – assisted by sports psychologist Steve Peters – and the Lions tour of South Africa came too soon.

“After the ban it became obvious he was our natural leader,” Shields said, before bestowing the highest praise that can be laid at the feet of an English player.

“Wasps had it with Lawrence Dallaglio for a number of years. He was their talisman. ‘Follow me’, was how he led. Dylan is like that. He has grown into the role as captain. He has matured as a bloke too. He has a bit more business sense about him. He is a leader off the pitch as well.”

Anyway, Hartley appears to have come through the worst of it and is a better man for it as he bluntly stated in 2009: “A couple of years ago I was bit of a d***head but I wouldn’t be playing for England now if I was a liability.”

He does, however, continue to infuriate opposing players and supporters. Last November a forearm drop on Richie McCaw (as usual, lying over the ball) provoked the full ire of the other All Black forwards, particularly woolly mammoth lock Brad Thorn. Northampton team-mate Courtney Lawes was first in to rescue Hartley who was surrounded by his former countrymen.

He spent most of last Saturday’s first half goading Tigers scrumhalf and England team-mate Ben Youngs into retaliation. He may seek to mix it up with Cian Healy in Cardiff.

That would be an engaging, eh, subplot.

Despite clearly relishing the tag of hate figure from the opposition, Hartley is the guy team-mates love to see alongside them in the trenches.

“I think a lot of people outside Northampton don’t like him,” Shields added.

“They have their perceptions of Dylan and the sort of lad he is, but he is the absolute right man to be leading this club.”

If Hartley is still jabbering away entering the last quarter at the Millennium Stadium then Leinster could be in trouble but if he is blowing hard, as he was at Welford Road, it’s a sure sign that a second European title in three years will be on the late night charter back to Dublin.