the night train to nowhere, nebraska

DYLAN HARTLEY IS BACK IN THE DOCK THIS WEEK AFTER PICKING UP YET ANOTHER RED CARD IN NORTHAMPTON’S CRUSHING LOSS TO LEINSTER LAST FRIDAY. IS RUGBY – YET AGAIN – READY TO FORGIVE HIM OR HAS THE SPORT FINALLY RUN OUT OF PATIENCE?

Liam Gallagher was once asked why he’s such an oik. ‘I do know how to behave,’ he said, ‘but sometimes I can’t be bothered,’ a two-fingered reply which – presumably – was designed specifically to reinforce his repellent reputation. But as much as we all know that ‘to err is human and to forgive, divine’, patience does have a limited privilege which is perhaps why it’s technically impossible to make the same mistake twice, given that the second time you make it, it’s a choice, the third time you make it, it’s a habit and, thereafter, you’re Dylan Hartley.

Hartley is rugby’s Swiss Army Knife: every piece of him seems to serve some kind of – illicit – function, almost as though he’s working his way through his anatomy to find new parts of his body with which to assault people; biting, butting, verbally abusing officials, punching, gouging, elbowing and – now – smashing people in the face with his forearm. Indeed he’s already exhausted all the options his head and arms have to offer so what’s left is just his legs – kicking, kneeing, stamping – at which point a unique collection would be complete.

And if he should end up with all his badges of dishonour he’ll have been aided and abetted by a sport that – God knows why – too often seems too ready to excuse and indulge him. On Friday night, he threw a haymaker which left Sean O’Brien flat on the canvas – for all the world it was as though he was launching an invisible discus – and on Sunday morning, Ian McGeechan wrote this in his newspaper column: ‘It was a poorly-timed tackle for which he must take responsibility … he will be disappointed with his carelessness but for me it’s a timely reminder for him to keep his discipline … is Hartley still in contention for the Lions captaincy? In my book, yes.’

I confess it took me a while to digest this because the first time I read it, my eyeballs fell into my cornflakes. ‘A poorly-timed tackle?’ It was neither. ‘A timely reminder for him to keep his discipline?’ He has more convictions than Capone. Does he really need reminders to behave himself? ‘Still in contention for the Lions captaincy?’ Well, so far he’s gouged Jonny O’Conner, bitten Stephen Ferris, punched Rory Best and, now, stiff-armed Sean O’Brien: tough to imagine Ireland lighting too many fireworks should Hartley be named captain of the British and Irish Lions.

Stuart Barnes – on air, in print and round a Belfast breakfast table on Saturday morning – had more mitigations to offer; namely that part of the blame for Hartley’s dismissal lay with Jim Mallinder for sticking him on the bench for the Leinster game. ‘Anyone with the slightest inkling of the hooker’s character may have guessed this selection was a recipe for a red card,’ said Stuart. ‘This is not to turn the England captain into the victim of the evening … but did the mismanagement of Northampton’s resources play a not insignificant part in his aberration?’

Barnesy’s always been one for the road less travelled – it’s what makes him such a stimulation – but in this case I fear my old chum is up a dead end. Yes, Hartley on the bench was intriguing but how exactly was it ‘a recipe for a red card’? Does he seriously think that (a) Dylan is that bitter and twisted or (b) Jim Mallinder should select his team on the basis of who’s going to have the smallest tantrum if he’s not in the starting fifteen? Not even the Much-Middling-in-the-Marsh Under Tens work to that recipe.

Others – in fairness – have been less inclined to offer loopholes and whitewash. Commentating on the game in Northampton on Friday, Brian O’Driscoll branded Hartley ‘mindless’ and ‘stupid’ while a blistering Lawrence Dallaglio – jaw jutting, eyes smouldering – let rip as only he can: ‘Without doubt it’s a red card, there’s no question about it … it was reckless and got what it deserved … I think it’s now time for Dylan to go away and have a little think about what’s important for him … Dylan has kind of checked out of playing for Northampton this season and I don’t think you can do that … I’ve been captain of England so I know what the pressures are like. It’s tough, but when you come back you need to give the guys a lift. You need to get the banter back, get the spirits back and translate your confidence back to your club, but every time that’s been asked of him, he’s not done it, he’s just looked after himself. He does need to go away and have a little look at his game and himself and come back as a Northampton Saints player.’

Lawrence – you have to presume – has an inside track at Franklin’s Gardens but even from the far side of the car park you sense a ‘disconnect’ between management and player or, more accurately, between management and players. That’s Northampton’s problem and, one way or another, the club will have to deal with it. Eddie England’s issue – arguably – is the more ticklish.

Much will depend on the deal Jones did with his captain when he hung his hat on Hartley a year or so ago. Did he effectively say: ‘Do your stuff for me, Dylan, I’ll ride shotgun for you and everything will be dandy’ or did he perhaps offer rugby’s recidivist a drink in the last-chance saloon and say: ’Look, I’m making you skipper but stuff up once more and I’m punching you a one-way ticket on the night train to Nowhere, Nebraska’, or whatever it is stone-hard, sharp-tongued Australians say when they’re wagging a warning forefinger.

Of course it’s possible that Eddie may be able to ride this one out should justice hand Hartley – say – a four-week ban. Don’t laugh. There are well-placed people who reckon that’s precisely what he’ll get. But even if the ban overlaps the Six Nations, Jones can wait for everyone to enjoy a fuggy, forgetful Christmas and then, come the New Year, stand by his man, point to his whiter than white record in a white shirt and dare the media to gainsay him. After all, he’s won thirteen straight. That kind of record doesn’t brook too many arguments.

But Eddie Jones needs to think this through long and hard because Friday night brought all kinds of skeletons tumbling back out of the cupboard. True, Hartley’s behaved himself so far on Eddie’s watch – more than that; by all accounts he’s been outstanding – but history’s shown that having him on the team is like living with a gas leak. And if Jones does stand by him and – for the sake of argument – he calls the referee a fucking cheat in a World Cup quarter final in 2019 and fourteen man England crash out with four years’ work going down the toilet, what will be Eddie’s defence when the brickbats are raining down faster than cushions at a bullfight? Deep down, does he one hundred per cent trust his captain and his own ability to manage him?

Other factors tie into these computations. Does he reckon Hartley’s alpha male influence is actually going to be needed through to the World Cup in 2019 or might he feel he’s already served his purpose as an interim leader? Which in turn means he needs to weigh the worth of his burgeoning Saracens. Is Jamie George ready to move lock, stock and barrel-chest into the front row and if so – crucially – who benches behind him? Does Dylan’s England roomie, Owen Farrell, have too many responsibilities already to carry the captaincy as well or is Prince Maro ready to step up to assume a crown which, sooner or later, will be his by absolute right? Eddie is as Eddie does and vice versa.

So if – one way or the other – Hartley’s still leading England out at Twickenham in February, where does that leave the rest of us: shrugging our shoulders or weeping into our beer? For many it was stretching credibility to offer the England captaincy to a man who’d already spent fifty-four weeks on the naughty step. Adding an extra – say – two months to the rap sheet isn’t likely to make him any more appealing. On the other hand, marching onto the moral higher ground and bemoaning the fall in standards in public life, the scrapping of the Royal Yacht and the ‘thug’ who’s captaining ‘our’ country – social media ad infinitum in the last forty-eight hours – can leave you looking as though you’re hysterical or hyperventilating.

But perhaps this is, finally, a breach too far for Dylan Hartley and a small watershed for the sport. Rugby union – at its very best – is beautiful but brutal. The hurts that players inflict on each other legitimately are blood-curdling enough, which means that, these days, tolerance for acts of foul play should be zero. We have – emphatically – moved on and the old mores are no more. So if you bite someone or you gouge someone, please, for all our sakes, leave the sport and seek therapy. You cheap shot people, you concuss them, you wilfully assault them? Don’t expect to do this twice and hold on to your licence. Why? Because rugby union has an absolute duty of care to the people who play it and to slap miscreants on the wrist with a wet bus ticket is a gross dereliction of that duty.

And if – as in this case – you swing a forearm into the jaw of a man who cannot see the blow coming and, therefore, cannot brace or protect himself then, assuming rugby union’s serious about head injuries, you should expect to be heading for a six-month break. And while you’re taking it, you should be considering yourself blessed because if you did that outside a Northampton pub on a Saturday night, you’d be looking at two years porridge for ABH. And that’s not a pop at just Dylan Hartley. The sport needs to take a long hard look in the mirror on this issue before mothers everywhere burn their kids’ rugby boots and start buying them badminton rackets.

I have no idea what Dylan Hartley’s problem is. Perhaps Dylan Hartley has no idea what Dylan Hartley’s problem is. Like Graham Greene, maybe he senses ‘there is another man within me who is angry with me.’ Look, we’re straying off the path here and into the daisies. Excuse me. What’s abundantly clear from spending any time with him is that he’s not made of short planks, which makes his behaviour down the years all the more difficult to understand. But the bottom line is that you have to respect the game you play and the people with whom you play it – the more so in such a ferocious sport – and, with the best will in the world, Hartley’s disciplinary record suggests he does neither. What’s more there are only so many times you can piss in the soup and expect people to drink it.

Right now, whatever the EPCR magistrates decide, two pieces of Dylan’s anatomy are in the hands of Eddie Jones and – if you’ll pardon the imagery – it’s stick or twist. There is no middle ground here. Either he remains in post as the England captain – at the very pinnacle of the game in this country – or he’s on the aforementioned night train to Nowhere, Nebraska. It’ll be a fascinating call and not just for Dylan Hartley.

12 DECEMBER 2016

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