England hooker Dylan Hartley on the England v New Zealand World Cup semi-final, why Tier Two terminology should be banished, and the brouhaha surrounding high tackles

Dylan Hartley on the England v New Zealand Rugby World Cup semi-final

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By rights, Dylan Hartley should have been preparing to face the All Blacks in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final in Yokohama. Instead, England’s second-most capped player is recovering from a long-term knee injury and will watch from afar as Eddie Jones’s men attempt to inflict a first RWC defeat on the Kiwis since the Cardiff quarter-final 12 years ago.

“It’s everything we’ve worked towards for four years. They’re the two form teams in the tournament and it’s built up to be a great game,” says Hartley, who scored against the All Blacks in 2010 and again last year.

“No disrespect to Wales or South Africa but this is the game that everyone is looking forward to. I’ve got a bias but when you’re defending champions and the All Blacks, the bias is always coming your way. That is the game and that is the team to beat. They are the No 1 ranked team in the world, they’re the holders, so that is the game.”

Dylan Hartley celebrates his try v NZ, 2018

Fronting up: Hartley celebrates scoring England’s second try in last year’s 16-15 defeat by NZ (RFU/Getty)

The Northampton hooker believes the outcome is too close to call, but knows that England won’t get the helping hand afforded them by Australia’s temerity in the quarter-final.

“It’s going to be big moments, key moments in the game. There’s not going to be the opportunity that Australia gave England. Australia tried running from their own half, from their own five. They gave England an opportunity to defend and turn the ball over.

“Whereas the All Blacks kick a lot; they have a lot of attacking kicks, which they utilise really well. It’s going to be a couple of key moments in the game, who wins that arm wrestle in those periods. You get those small momentum shifts.

“Both teams have got great set-pieces, they’ve got good launch, they’ve got a good unstructured game to go to. So first, they can play structure off lineout, maul, scrum. And then equally off turnover or kick return, both teams can come alive. And on the day it’s down to who can take those big moments. Because both defences are good.”

Kieran Read v Ireland

Captain’s charge: Kieran Read carries for New Zealand in last weekend’s quarter-final v Ireland (Getty)

England have restored George Ford to the side, shunting Owen Farrell out to 12 and Henry Slade to the bench for what will be their fourth RWC encounter with the All Blacks following three galling defeats in the Nineties.

Some had speculated that George Kruis, their chief lineout caller, might start against Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, particularly given the way New Zealand wrested control of that area at Twickenham last year. With Kieran Read and specialist lock Scott Barrett also in the ABs pack, they have a welter of jumpers with which to put England under serious stress.

Hartley, however, takes comfort from seeing one of his Saints team-mates at the heart of the England eight. “What I enjoyed about the quarter-final is looking at the team and thinking, ‘Courtney Lawes is playing’. That means it’s business.

“If Courtney’s in the starting line-up I’m thinking it’s a big game. There were some stellar performances in that game from Underhill and Curry, or Undercurry. But when Courtney goes through a game and I don’t notice him, I know he’s working. Just quietly, unassuming.

Sam Underhill and Tom Curry

Back-row phantoms: Sam Underhill (left) and Tom Curry have been magnificent in Japan (Getty Images)

“And it’s a good sign when there are other people that I’m noticing. It takes the heat off Billy (Vunipola). Maro Itoje has got to do this, Jamie George has got to do that, Mako Vunipola is expected to do that. I think they’ve got a real good balance there; they’ve got a good harmony. The pack’s working well together, they know each other inside out.

“They understand how we want to play tactically and in that Australia game it all came together. Australia threw the kitchen sink at them and their ruck speed was quick. But the defence kept coming, you know, we’ve got this.

“Will the All Blacks give them that opportunity for it to all come together? England are going to face adversity, they’re going to face momentum shifts, they’re going to face different intensities and different threats.”

Hartley was talking at an event for Jeep Wrangler in London’s Docklands, a rare day off during his knee rehabilitation. The player joined Danny Cipriani and two players from the Great Britain Lions American Football team in competing in a series of kicking and throwing challenges. The venue was a derelict flour mill, built in the same year as the first England-New Zealand match (1905) and used in many a film, TV series or music video.

Dylan Hartley at the Jeep Wrangler Challenge

Tough ask! Hartley tries to kick a ball into a Jeep Wrangler as part of his challenge (Jed Leicester)

Although pained by his absence at rugby’s great showpiece, Hartley has soaked up the tournament from his living room. “I absolutely love it. All sport. Olympics, Rugby World Cup, Football World Cup. Things that come round every four years, they’re brilliant.

“You want to see upsets, we want to see these Tier One nations as we call them – we need to get rid of that terminology by the way – being pushed and ultimately beaten. Fiji was my team to be doing that to people; I tipped Fiji to be my Japan. And then Uruguay beat them.

“There’s a pretty good lesson there. Rugby, for all your tactical and technical superiority, is an emotive game. If you can get yourself to an emotional level and sustain that intensity, one to 15, one to 23, you can be a very difficult opposition and the game can reward you.

Uruguay celebrate beating Fiji at RWC 2019

Against the odds: Uruguay’s victory over Fiji provided a lesson for us all, says Hartley (Getty Images)

“For years, teams like Italy… everyone says you’ll win that one but there’s never an easy game because everyone to play international rugby needs to be physically robust. Samoa, Tonga, Fiji – soon these sorts of teams are going to tip that balance and come to the side of beating teams. And that’s what we’re seeing with Japan now. It’s not just a one-off, they can do it, they have that belief. They’re now at a level where maybe they’re not the underdogs.

“But I think for teams to grow, to develop and get that belief, you need to remove the Tier One/Tier Two psychology. If you only play a team once every four years, if you’re a touring Fiji or a touring Tonga, there is a psychological advantage to it.”

Hartley, 33, has plenty to say about the rash of cards issued at Japan 2019 for high tackles, with Bundee Aki (Ireland), Facundo Gattas (Uruguay), John Quill (USA) and Tomas Lavanini (Argentina) all seeing red and many others picking up yellows.

“I would hate the England-New Zealand game to be influenced by what we’ve seen with the red cards. We don’t want the game to be affected by ‘Ah, there was a red card for a millimetre-high head shot’. Rugby is a tough game and things are going to go wrong.

“For a guy to go in and make a good tackle, nice and low, bends at the hip, hinges like you’ve been taught from five years old, this is how you tackle, and for the ball-carrier to then dip to brace contact, things are going to go wrong.”

Such as with Samoan Seilala Lam’s yellow card against Ireland? “Yeah, it was perfect. I’m sat there thinking he couldn’t have done any more. Then what do you say? That ball-carriers have got to run upright? No ball-carrier in their right mind is going to run upright. You have to lean forward, transfer your bodyweight to brace for impact. If we go that route we might as well cancel the game. We’re not going to play the game any more because we can’t.

USA's John Quill is sent off v England, RWC 2019

Common theme: USA’s John Quill is sent off for a high tackle on Owen Farrell in Kobe (MB Media/Getty)

“And then you go low tackles. You’ve got people doing the kiss tackle, people both going low and then they kiss each other (like Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw v New Zealand) and you have HIAs on two defenders.

“People are trying to offer solutions (to the risk of concussion) but the solutions I’m hearing, there’s no common sense behind them. ‘High tackles? We’ll just lower the tackle height.’ No, it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy.”

The clampdown on high tackles won’t affect Hartley directly any time soon, with the player currently stranded on 97 Test caps and unable to put a time frame on his expected return to combat. He last played in December.

“I’ve learnt not to put a time frame on it because when that date comes knocking around the corner and you’re nowhere near it, it’s very disheartening,” he says. “I need to keep trying. That resilience to turn up and chip away at the problem and to keep going is still there.”

Dylan Hartley was taking part in the Jeep Wrangler Trick Shot Challenge. Learn the skills to carry out your own challenge here.

Dylan Hartley and Danny Cipriani, Jeep Wrangler Challenge

Kitted out: Hartley and Danny Cipriani outside the old mill where the challenge took place (Jed Leicester)

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