Nick Cain talks to Northampton and England hooker Dylan Hartley about growing up

Dylan Hartley Can Dylan Hartley make the quantum leap and become world class? Last season there were few signs of the Northampton and England hooker springing upwards to take his place among the game’s elite front five forwards, but now, despite an indisciplined streak that has threatened to derail his career, there are reasons to be cheerful.
Hartley is not the finished article – and six weeks into the new season this may be tempting fate – but there has been such an improvement in his core skills, and a tough, solid maturity to his play, and his captaincy, that he could have the makings of a No.2 to live up to the Red Rose legacy established by John Pullin, Peter Wheeler, Brian Moore and Steve Thompson.
It is an image that Hartley will be looking to burnish when the Saints open their latest European Cup account against Glasgow at Franklin’s Gardens today, while at the same time making a statement against the Scottish region which banishes the memory of last weekend’s shock 39-17 Premiership defeat at London Irish.
Although Northampton sit at the top of the English league with five wins out of six, it is instructive that Hartley was missing from their line-up for the first time this season at the Madejski, due to a hairline fracture of the sphenoid, the eye-socket bone, which caused his right eye to shut following a collision in their victory over Wasps a fortnight ago.
The fierce competitive spirit and passion Hartley brings as a leader were sorely missed as a surprisingly limp, rudderless Saints outfit were outgunned in all departments by the Irish. However, when it is suggested, innocuously, that he wasn’t there, he jumps in quickly:  “I was there. I was the waterboy screaming on the sideline.”
To get a clearer picture of Hartley’s recent transformation, his story needs turning back a few pages. There was still too much of the pantomime villain about the Saints hooker a year ago, although no-one was laughing. Despite captaining Northampton he still had a tendency to self-destruct, flagged initially by a six month suspension for gouging in 2007. His eight-week ban for biting the Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris during England’s emphatic Six Nations win over Ireland in March was not only an unwelcome reminder of his excesses when the red mist decends, but a sickener for Northampton, who were without their captain for the last four matches of the regular season in the Aviva Premiership – and even more harmfully for their slender play-off semi-final defeat by Harlequins.
However, if Hartley’s relapse contributed to Northampton being unable to shake off their bridesmaid’s tag, he still remained on Stuart Lancaster’s radar, and no sooner had he served his time than the England coach restored the errant Saint to his Test front row for the summer series against South Africa. Not only that, but Lancaster made Hartley captain for the third Test against the Springboks after Chris Robshaw was injured.

To the bin: Dylan Hartley is sent to the bin by Steve Walsh
To the bin: Dylan Hartley is sent to the bin by Steve Walsh

According to Hartley there was no shortage of people who thought the England coach had made the biggest blunder of his career. So, when he was sin-binned in Port Elizabeth, leaving England to play a man short at the start of the final quarter of a Test match balanced on a razor’s edge, Hartley felt mortified that he had not only let his team-mates and coach down, but played into the hands of his critics.
“The ref, Steve Walsh, kept saying to me, ‘Dylan no more penalties in this area’. Although they were not against me – they were more team penalties in the red zone – the ball was being killed or slowed. Then there was a ball on the floor and I fell on it. I thought ‘He can’t do me’, and then you see him reaching for his pocket, and you feel like grabbing his hand and saying, ‘No, No, No! ’. My heart sank. You can imagine, in my first game as captain, and with all the added pressures….”
His failure to finish the sentence speaks volumes. Then he says: “A lot of people want to see that happen as well. With Dylan Hartley, I know that people want to see him get binned. They want to see him fail. There were a lot of people at home going, ‘Yes!’  I get people tweeting saying ‘Ive put £5 on you getting a red card today’. Ultimately, I was disappointed we drew the game, because we could have won it.”
In many ways Hartley was fortunate the yellow-card was not more costly, with England holding firm and the 14-14 scoreline hailed as a moral victory following two bruising defeats, but all leaders need a little luck.
Jim Mallinder was the first to recognise Hartley’s potential as a captain, and the Saints director of rugby says the Kiwi-born hooker with an English mother has become a formidable motivator. “It could be that our loss to the Irish was because Dylan wasn’t there. He’s our leader, our first choice hooker — you can rotate players, but he is very hard to replace.”
Hartley, 26, has not only remedied technical flaws with the help of Dorian West, the Saints forwards coach – such as a tendency to pop-up when under pressure at the scrum, or to lose the ball through poor control or miracle passes in the loose – but has moved onto the next level in all senses.
Mallinder says: “It’s maturity. He understands what he has to do to get the best out of people and inspire the team, whether it’s getting players to clean up after them – if someone leaves something on the floor in the showers he’ll tell them, ‘clean that up you lazy bugger’  – or getting the academy lads around for a barbecue.
“If you watched Dylan as a young player he had all the skills, could handle and carry. Now he has a hard edge. He is a very good scrummager and lineout thrower, who spends hours practicing and has become on of the most accurate throwers in the game. We see less of the flash stuff now, and instead we have a hard-carrying, really tough, abrasive hooker who does the basics very well.”
New man in charge? Jim Mallinder reckons Hartley can deliver as England captain
New man in charge? Jim Mallinder reckons Hartley can deliver as England captain

The Northampton boss also backs his man to deliver if Lancaster goes back to him with the captaincy ahead of Robshaw this autumn.
“It gave me pride to see him made England captain, because a few people questioned our decision when we made him captain of this club. Stuart has a difficult decision to make now. I can’t comment on the qualities of anyone else, but I know Dylan’s qualities, and what he offers.”
However, Hartley plays down his chances. “If it comes I would love it, but Chris Robshaw is doing alright this season. He is playing well and he is injury-free. He has done a good job, and I have just got to make sure I play well for the next four weeks and I am the front-runner for the (No.2) shirt.”
The Saints skipper, who has a phlegmatic, happy-go-lucky manner off the pitch which contrasts starkly with his aggression and beady focus on it, concludes: “I don’t think there would be many England captains who got binned in their first game.”
There is something about Hartley’s response which suggests that the let-off after his sin-binning against the Springboks, combined with the costliness of his two month ban at the end of last season to his club, were watershed moments in terms of truly shouldering his responsibilities. Instances when the switch flicked on, and for the first time shone a light on the avoidable damage his indiscipline was doing to himself, his team-mates, and the coaches who have backed him.
Ask Hartley where he has improved and he says, “Experience, maybe. Age-wise I’m still not the oldest but as an international I’m the most capped here at the club. So, if you look for experience, I think the lads might look to me like that. I try and live up to it in a way. I’m just more comfortable in my role.”
He also says that in the three Tests over the summer butting heads with Bismarck du Plessis, the South African hooker currently ranked as the best in the world, did him a power of good.
“There’s parts of my game I’d rate as good as his, I’m not going to say better than him, and there’s things I can do that he can’t. But what Bismarck does outside of the set-piece is pretty special. He’s like an extra back row forward. That’s where I’d like to get to.
“He’s pretty decent, but he’s injured now though. He’s certainly a big player for them.  I agree he’s probably No.1, so it’s good to play against people like that. And that’s what the Heineken Cup gives you as well – a step up in terms of opposition, and against people you don’t play against all the time. I’ve never played against (Glasgow hooker) Dougie Hall, so that‘s another challenge.”
If Hartley succeeds in inspiring the Saints to raise their game again above the level that saw them lose an epic European Cup final to Leinster two years ago, and retains his place in an England side that claims Southern Hemisphere scalps this autumn, he will be climbing up the rungs of the ladder to world class status.
It has been a long haul, hampered by disciplinary sanctions, but Hartley says the setbacks have made him stronger.
“I have had and up and down career thus far, so I have got a skin like a rhino – I can take the abuse.”
The upside is that if Hartley continues improving at the rate he has this season, he may no longer have to.

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