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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: England's Kiwi pick a poke in eye for decency

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Equally bogus is the insistence that whatever happened in the past is irrelevant: it's a new era and the slate has been wiped clean.
Former All Black captain Richie McCaw. Photo / Nick Reed
Former All Black captain Richie McCaw. Photo / Nick Reed

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Just as England summoned Winston Churchill from the political wilderness in 1939, English rugby in its darkest hour has turned to its black sheep.

Embittered and embarrassed by failing to progress beyond pool play at its own World Cup, the country that once epitomised rugby's amateur ethos and regarded itself as the spiritual home of fair play and sportsmanship has thrown principle and propriety out the window and handed the England captaincy to the dirtiest big-name player in world rugby.

Rotorua Boys High School product Dylan Hartley has played 66 tests, which isn't bad going given that he's lost a full year of his career to suspensions, in the process missing out on two World Cups and a British and Irish Lions tour. He's pretty much done it all: butting, biting, elbowing, eye gouging, referee abuse.

Like the captaincy of the Australian cricket team, the All Black captaincy is often described as the second most important job in the country.

The captaincy of the England rugby team doesn't occupy quite the same place in that nation's mythology and culture, but is nevertheless a significant and high-profile leadership position.

It's astonishing that those who run the game there are so indifferent to the symbolism attached to the highest playing honour at their disposal that they could gift it to such a tarnished figure. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote "Action is character" and, in nature and number, Hartley's actions indicate that his character is, to say the least, flawed.

Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward, an enthusiastic supporter, called the appointment a "statement of intent". It certainly sent out various messages, one of which is that Last Chance Saloon has closed its bat-wing doors. The message to young English players is that serial disgrace won't necessarily be held against you: the biggest mongrels can still aspire to the highest responsibility.

Hartley certainly interpreted his appointment that way: "It's been bumpy, but it's been fun. I wouldn't change any of it. Maybe without the setbacks I wouldn't be sat here."

The English rugby media's uncritical response is almost as big a mystery as the appointment itself. (The term "role model" was conspicuous by its absence.) Among the spurious journalistic endorsements was the assertion that Hartley's predecessor Chris Robshaw was "a dignified, upright captain and was, as such, the exception in a badly behaved sport".

This is balderdash. In a New Zealand context, "dignified" and "upright" are terms that fit Wilson Whineray, Brian Lochore, Graham Mourie, Andy Dalton, David Kirk, Richie McCaw and the majority of those who've led the All Blacks. Further afield, the likes of John Eales, John Smit and Jean De Villiers were admired for those very qualities.

Equally bogus is the insistence that whatever happened in the past is irrelevant: it's a new era and the slate has been wiped clean.

We are, personally and professionally, the accumulation of our experiences and achievements (or non-achievements) and, crucially, how they are perceived by others. To pretend otherwise is to refuse to face reality. Do those making this argument really believe that, if Hartley re-offends, the disciplinary process will ignore his rap sheet?

A common theme was that if you don't, like Hartley, operate on the edge, you're a pushover. This is just muddying the waters: most international rugby players play it hard and test the law without crossing the line into malevolence.

Like former England World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson whose hard-man reputation was frequently invoked in support of Hartley's appointment. Johnson had his brushes with the judiciary but never evinced Hartley's malice or loss of control. And, interestingly, he was one of the very few to question Hartley's appointment.

Jones "hopes and prays" that his hand-picked captain doesn't reoffend, but insists it would've been more of a risk not to take that risk. So what exactly is the risk that has been avoided: England losing a few games and taking a while to get back into the top tier of international rugby? The England forward pack not being feared?

We're back to the old, barren mindset that winning is everything and anything resembling an ideal must be sacrificed on the altar of results.

Woodward warned Hartley that, if he gets into further trouble, he'll be letting himself and the team down "to a whole new level". Sure, but those who made and endorsed the appointment will have far more to be ashamed about.

- NZ Herald

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