The Big Read: Dylan Hartley's journey from villain to hero

By Chris Foy

Dylan Hartley, the England captain raises the Cook Cup after their victory during the International Test match against Australia. Photo / Getty Images
Dylan Hartley, the England captain raises the Cook Cup after their victory during the International Test match against Australia. Photo / Getty Images

Before considering the emphatic transformation in his career, Dylan Hartley had news from home. It was his daughter's first birthday, but poor Thea was having a hard time.

'Apparently, she did a runny poo on the cream carpet then head-butted the kitchen door and got a fat lip,' he said, amid the relative serenity of Franklin's Gardens, minus the usual full house of Northampton fans. 'I had to laugh. It's all going off!'

Over the course of a life-changing year, fatherhood and rugby fulfilment have gone hand-in-hand. Last August, the 30-year-old became a parent, just as he was coming to terms with missing the World Cup, on disciplinary grounds. Since then, his sporting status and reputation have undergone a rapid and profound overhaul.

Gone is the costume of the pantomime villain, which the hooker feared he would be forced to wear forever. In its place, he has not just reclaimed his England No 2 shirt, but an arm-band of high office, too.

Just six months after his appointment as national captain by Eddie Jones was greeted by a deluge of moral outrage, the critics had been emphatically silenced by a Grand Slam, a 3-0 tour whitewash of Australia and firm, decisive, inspirational leadership.

After 10 matches as skipper, Hartley is unbeaten, imperious even, with a draw while deputising for Chris Robshaw in South Africa in 2012, followed by nine successive wins under Jones. Entrenched perceptions have been shattered. Having been vilified so often in the past, he is now acclaimed as a front-runner to lead the Lions to his native New Zealand next summer.

No wonder he is in buoyant mood going into the new season with Northampton - starting with the Aviva Premiership opener at home against Bath. He is so enthused by the recent turn of events that thoughts have shifted to the far future and the prospect of playing on for another decade. But Hartley is also desperate to savour the landmarks as they fly by.

'It is my 11th season now and it's gone in a flash,' he said. 'I want the seasons to count for something - I want to mark them with things. That's why the Six Nations was brilliant and the tour, because that left a mark, otherwise your career would just be a whole lot of games.

'I'd love to stay in the game for as long as possible. I'm nowhere near ready to finish yet. I'm in my prime, so I've got another 10 years in me, at least! My mate Paul Tupai is still going with Bedford at the age of 41. I love the game. I love the environment. I miss the lads when I'm off.

'Your career can go so fast. It's been interesting to talk to older guys and watch someone like Victor Matfield, playing with us at the age of 38. If he didn't play an 80-minute game, on a Monday morning he'd be in doing fitness. Brad Thorn is big on his stretching and he's still going at 41.

'The older you get, the more professional you become. I used to go on the beers on a Saturday night, just turn up for training on a Monday and there would be no pool recovery, no stretching, nothing. You just get by because you're young and your body is fine. But the older I've got, I've learned to understand diet and recovery techniques and things like that. I love it; I love being professional.'

As England captain, Hartley has been ultra professional - delighting Jones with the way he has set standards away from the gaze of public scrutiny.

The head coach has led a torrent of tributes to a man who had grown wearily resigned to being the subject of negative opinion. Furthermore, he has already indicated that Hartley will retain the captaincy through the autumn series this year and potentially all the way to the next World Cup.

Yet, all the praise and the prospects of retaining his leading role are not being taken for granted. Far from it.

'Back-slaps are nice,' said Hartley. 'They are coming from people who are fans of the game, so it is good to get that support. But you have to filter it for what it is. For every back-slap there is probably a kick up the a*** as well.

'Perception is huge. Perception is what it is because of my record. I'm aware of that and it helps me realise that I will be judged every time I play, on how I play and how I do as captain, so I have to keep working hard. I can't ever rest and think, "I'm the England captain", because as soon as I think that, I won't be anymore.

'When I play for Northampton and people see me as the England captain, I've got to perform. I've got to make sure I front up all the time.

'Let's see if I get it this autumn and if I do it this autumn, it is another block of hard work and a lot goes with it. The privilege is great, but I'm very realistic; it's always a temporary thing. Nothing is permanent. As soon as I start talking about the next World Cup, it can all go away pretty quickly.'

For many years, Hartley's family had to contend with the grim business of supporting him through times of trouble, when the bans left gaping holes in his career and brought damnation from all around. So he took real satisfaction from being able to enjoy a recent career highlight with his parents, who had flown across the Tasman Sea to watch the final Test in Australia.

'My parents came over for the last game in Sydney and I think it was nice for them to be part of those celebrations,' he said. 'I made a point of finding them in the crowd and getting a photo, because they never get to come and watch me play.

'We stayed in Sydney for a few days after and had a good time together as a family. They have been part of my journey and always will be. Your parents stick by you and support you, and they've always done that. It was nice for them to have a bit of good news. It was nice for them to see people saying nice things about me.'

Following the tour, Hartley went back to the family farm in Rotorua, for an extended break - although the 'holiday' was punctuated by chats with Jones about how England can improve. It was also punctuated by training, which involved running laps of a roundabout that his parents have by their house. Where once he would have switched off completely, there was a different mind-set.

'I stayed on my toes,' he said, knowing that rivals will pose a selection threat this season; from Mikey Haywood at Northampton to Jamie George and countless others with England.
For now, he is treating all the Lions speculation with due caution. His epic feats with England in 2016 have propelled him into a hypothetical short-list of captaincy candidates, along with the Welsh icons, Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones. However, after missing the last trip due to another untimely ban, he is not dreaming big dreams just yet.

'I want to play for the Lions,' said Hartley. 'I have goals that I write down and it's no secret that that is on there, but I don't even want to think about it yet. Everyone wants to talk about favourites and the bookies have their odds. I've seen them, but it's still a long way off.

'Missing the last tour was another setback - another failure, you could say. It was another bump in the road which made me more resilient. It was probably good for me. But you have to re-set goals and it has made me even hungrier to get on this next tour.

'With the family connection (in New Zealand), it would be special if I made it. I have always wanted to play at Rotorua International Stadium. I played there as a schoolboy when I was 14 or 15. The Lions play the Maori there.

'We used to go there after school, play touch rugby and practise kicking. It is one of the best surfaces in the world, I think. So that would be, you know...'

It would be another pinnacle, another highlight, to go with a growing collection. But that is on the back-burner for the time being. First and foremost, after long injury absences last season, Hartley wants to play regularly for the Saints and be part of their quest to make amends for missing the Premiership play-offs last year.

Then, when the next Test window opens, the objective will be to keep England's winning run going, not that chasing distant records is on the agenda.

'There is a realisation that we have a target on our heads now,' he said. 'But we're not worrying about what other people think. Us being unbeaten is in the past. People are already asking, "Do you want to go unbeaten in the autumn?" and someone even mentioned Clive Woodward's record (14 consecutive Test victories).

'But what's the point of worrying about all that? We just need to focus all our energy on beating South Africa in our next game.'

That will be pragmatic music to the ears of Jones, who has found an ideal figurehead for his England revival. Meanwhile, Hartley declares he is 'desperate' for the season to start, as he sets his sights on another decade as a player. What a year he has had; of fatherhood and rugby fulfilment. What a transformation.

- Daily Mail

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 22 Jan 2017 13:16:58 Processing Time: 721ms