In the wake of Stuart Lancaster’s departure as English rugby’s head coach, a major shakeup of the authority figures within Twickenham is well underway, as Mike Catt, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree all follow Lancaster out of the door, and new coach Eddie Jones assesses the options available to him. He has quickly moved to relieve Chris Robshaw of captains duties, and looked to alternative figures to revive the teams fortunes ahead of the Six Nations in February.
As speculation continues to mount over the possibility of Northampton Saints hooker Dylan Hartley taking over the armband in Robshaw’s stead, this decision has to be one that Jones looks over with attention, more than what he appeared to utilise in his ultimately speedy displacement of former captain Robshaw.
Courtney Lawes can be regarded as a hot head. Manu Tuilagi’s temperament can sometimes get the better of him. The pair are nothing in the face of indiscipline compared to Hartley. One doesn’t have to look too far back to find Hartley’s most recent scrape with authority – he was cited for an off the ball headbutt during Saints semi-final with Saracens and the ban brought to him meant he was ultimately dropped for England’s World Cup squad. Ironically enough, the player on the receiving end of Hartley’s latest episode of rage, Jamie George, was the man who replaced him in England’s World Cup squad. A fair punishment for a player who, it seems, is constantly ready for a fight as soon as the first whistle blows.
To look at it statistically, the numbers do indeed make for eye widening reading. He incurred his first ban aged 21, an eye gouging incident which led to 26 weeks away from the pitch. This saw him miss the 2007 World Cup, at which he may surely have had a part to play, and the first of 3 consecutive tournaments missed through ill discipline. Since then, he has accrued a total of 54 weeks worth of bans across 6 different but hugely media worthy incidents, from eye gouging and head butting to biting and verbal abuse. True, he has taken steps to steer him away from such ill tempered responses, including to seek the help of a sports psychiatrist, and made public acknowledgements of his inexcusable behaviour, yet the good it has done him appears to disappear from the moment he is lured into any confrontation.
Furthermore, rugby has long been a sport for which ‘respect’ is an endearing quality, endorsed nationwide. Respect for fellow players, referees, coaches and spectators alike. It is always encouraged to those learning the game at school level, a sportsmans code of conduct perpetuated up to the very highest level of the professional game. As someone who has, in the past, imparted physical violence upon his fellow rugby players, not to mention his verbal scything of referee Wayne Barnes in a domestic game, to then hand the armband over to Hartley represents one of two inferrals.
The first, which will not be on coach Jones mind, is that it is perfectly acceptable to inplement the game of rugby with controversy and violence in the manner of which Hartley has done, and still return to it blessed with a clean slate, and remain in contention for the game’s highest personal honours – such as team captaincy. Ultimately as being a role model representative to younger generations, for whom England’s rugby team are the stars in their eyes, as being a players who’s primary drive in the game is a violent and bellicose attitude.
The second inferral here is that it marks the first major squad decision of Jones’ reign, and may be something upon which future results are judged. It is also a monumentally large gamble should he offer the armband to Hartley. As a hugely likeable character on the pitch, in the stands, and in the dressing room, Robshaw’s removal as captain has sparked chagrin among supporters, despite his occasional mistake in decision making. To replace him with the combustible Hartley implies a fighting spirit Jones intends to exacerbate on the pitch, a spirit that a much touted replacement in Joe Launchbury will evidently fail to uphold.
A friend took to Facebook to compare Hartley’s potential appointment to Stannis Baratheon being a good father. Baratheon, the Game of Thrones character, famously sent his own child to be burned at the stake as a sacrifice to the Lord of the Light. He – Hartley – is, to quote said friend, ‘as appropriate to the England captaincy as Stannis Baratheon is to fatherhood’. While this may be a quote in which the situations bear a noticeable difference, it certainly isn’t far from the general concensus. Hartley’s temper alone is one reason why he should not replace Robshaw. What good is he should he be banned again?
Jones has some serious thinking to do, but the idea of making Hartley captain should not be one to mull over for too long if he wants to rebuild England to the highest level.