Dylan Hartley will spend another six weeks in the cooler but it might be good news for Eddie Jones ahead of the Six Nations
Depending on which side of the fence you sit on, and no-one is sitting on it, Dylan Hartley is either a brilliant England captain who has made the odd mistake, but dragged his team out of the gutter, or rugby’s equivalent of a mad axe murderer who deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The truth is somewhere between the two but, as Hartley contemplates another six weeks in the cooler, he can count himself slightly lucky and Eddie Jones can count himself even more fortunate that his man is around for the Six Nations.
There have been calls for a life ban for Hartley, following his latest misdemeanour, but not too many of them have come from anyone from England, or associated with the English team and there is a reason why and a reason why Jones might just have hit the jackpot again.
Hartley is more important to England than he is to Northampton – if club team selection is anything to go by – he has only played three hours of rugby for the Saints this season and they seem to prefer Mikey Haywood at club level.
Just like England’s centrally contracted cricketers who spend their lives on national duty, Hartley is an international player and Jones staked his reputation on him about 12 months ago- he seems to have known the deal.
Just over a year ago news leaked out that Jones, newly installed as England head coach after the disastrous World Cup, was planning to give the hooker the national captaincy. That was greeted with derision from some quarters and incredulity from others.
Aussie Jones spent a lot of time at the racetrack in his younger days and this one smacked of a gamble. Firebrand hooker, loads of bans, missed a World Cup and a British & Irish Lions tour because of brushes with the law – it was all going to end in tears.
But so far the only tears have been coming from England’s opponents who were seen off 13 times in 2016. No wonder the RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie rushed to Hartley’s defence the day before his latest disciplinary hearing saying that good old Dylan had plenty of credit in the bank.
Jones was in the stands at Franklin’s Gardens last Friday when Hartley went about adding to his suspension count with a dangerous tackle in Northampton’s Champions Cup clash with Leinster on Irish flanker Sean O’Brien.
When he trotted on as a replacement Hartley had served 54 weeks in the cooler and, after Wednesday’s night verdict, that will be 60 weeks by 23 January when he is free to play again. Jones’ hands were in his hands but on reflection he might not think that a month-and-a-half is too bad a thing for his leader and a man who he says, along with Owen Farrell, is the driver of the side.
Cynics might say Ritchie was getting a shot in early, and the RFU were flexing their muscles, but Hartley’s offence occurred under the jurisdiction of the European Rugby bods and the panel was made up of two Welshmen and an Italian.
Hartley got five weeks for the tackle, two weeks for his massive charge sheet and a week knocked off for saying sorry and pleading guilty. And his ban ends just as England’s Six Nations preparations are in full swing and that can only spell good news for Jones.
Jones has had the Midas touch since he took over the England gig. Rugby in the land of the world’s biggest and richest union was in disarray after they hosted a party when they were kicked out by the bouncers before the canapés were even served.
Hartley has plenty of previous on the disciplinary front but he also has previous on coming back on top of his game when he has little to no rugby. And Jones has got lucky on this front.
His captain will play no competitive rugby between now and the end of January and when he does get a crack at a game it will be against France at Twickenham. In between, Hartley will surely get his nut down and then appear at England’s scheduled training camp ahead of the Six Nations fired up and ready to go. Jones will have plenty of time in that week to decide if Hartley is ready and put him through his paces.
This is a 30-year old front rower we are talking about. Hartley has been around the block and could probably do with a decent bit of feet-up time – he has proved, like David Gower back in the day, he can play at the highest level without too much aggravation with domestic sport.
Between England’s Grand Slam game against France, in March, when Hartley was knocked sparko and on the deck for 10 minutes, and his reappearance in national colours, against Wales in May, he played precisely 17 minutes of rugby – off the bench for Northampton against Gloucester.
After that he played 76 minutes against the Welsh in the 27-13 win at Twickenham and then led England to a 3-0 win series win over Australia. Think of the upsides for the England boss.
He gets a captain who will be steaming, who will be fit and without any niggles and a bloke who is raring to go again. The world and his wife are cracking on about player welfare, quite rightly, but Hartley is one player who won’t be heading to the Six Nations opener jaded. And that could be even better news for Warren Gatland when it comes to Lions time in New Zealand.
Hartley knows he owes Jones one and Jones is almost certain to expect payback and he will probably get it. I wonder what Eddie’s lottery numbers are.