For any supporter of the men in white, England captain Dylan Hartley is a bittersweet curate’s egg: simultaneously a wonderful leader and a dreadful liability.
After a brilliant year captaining his country, England leader Dylan Hartley decided to cap it all off with a red card off the bench for his club Northampton against Leinster in the Champions Cup.
It was a foolish challenge on Sean O’Brien, one that fans either partisan or not will continue to argue over whether there was any intent, but ultimately it deserved to be punished in line with the laws and that has happened.
Some will call it lenient, others will say it is enough, but regardless it is yet another blot in the already hideously messy copybook of Dylan Hartley’s.
Yet despite having received 60 weeks in bans throughout his playing career, Hartley has only ever picked up three yellow cards in international rugby.
To put that into some context, 177 test players have received more than two yellow cards in international rugby – including some of the biggest names in world rugby. Bryan Habana picked up seven yellow cards; Quade Cooper, James Haskell and Michael Hooper are some of the players to have picked up six; and even Irish legend Paul O’Connell collected four during his career. The list goes on, yet none of these players is regarded as a ‘thug’ by supporters of the game.
Of course, one must temper this with the ban Hartley received for biting Ireland forward Stephen Ferris back in 2012, the same season in which he picked up his first yellow card: against South Africa on England’s summer tour.
At the highest level, Hartley’s record on the pitch for his country far surpasses that of his club Northampton; at that level he has been one of the most ill-disciplined players in professional rugby. So how can the hooker be such a different player for his country compared to his club?
It is almost as if the pressure of international rugby and the responsibilities of leading one’s own country mean Hartley doesn’t push the boundaries in terms of the laws of the game when it comes to England, yet does not take such an approach when appearing for his club. It is as if he can prevent the red mist descending when he is under the most scrutiny.
Yet if this is the case then why did Hartley allow himself to headbutt Jamie George in the Premiership semi-final with Saracens back at the tail end of the 2014/15 season? How can the same man have led his glory to their first ever Premiership title the season before? Hartley is almost two players in his inconsistency.
His disciplinary problems have even led to the Rotorua-born hooker spending time with a sports psychologist.
As a player Dylan Hartley is a real enigma: he’s always consistently good and has in the past been a wonderful player for his club and at times England, but for many it seemed the troubled past of the Saints hooker was far behind him when Eddie Jones handed him the captaincy back in January this year.
It was a huge call by the Australian, but it paid off handsomely as Hartley’s natural leadership qualities came to the fore as the men in white went from an awful 2015 to an unprecedented 2016. Such a turnaround in fortunes is credited to the coaching team and the players themselves, but the captain must also take the plaudits. In 13 games as captain his team won 13 times and he did not pick a single card of any colour.
It seemed like Hartley might even be one of the leading contenders to take on the mantle of Lions captain for the forthcoming tour to New Zealand.
However, Dylan’s latest moment of madness against Leinster has now once more brought his capacity to lead into question once more. Although he is clearly a wonderful captain, how can you reward such a responsibility to a man who cannot keep his discipline?
With Hartley able to take a full part in England’s next Six Nations campaign after being banned for six weeks, Eddie Jones will almost certainly hand the captaincy back to him.
Jones does not focus on the moral integrity of his players as much as his antecedent Stuart Lancaster and will rightly say the disciplinary system has already done its job.
But in order for Hartley to fulfil his true potential he must rid himself of that Hyde-like thoughts than can often cloud his Jekyll-like qualities.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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