- Dylan Hartley speaks openly about the impact of Premiership Final red card
- “You really miss what you’re doing, you miss rugby” – England hooker
“At one point I contemplated a bit of a gap year, taking some time out because of the mental strain.”
Looking back on a summer dominated by his red card in the Aviva Premiership Final, the extent of the mental anguish suffered by Dylan Hartley is etched on his face and clear in his words.
The Northampton Saints captain was ordered from the field for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes on the stroke of half time, carrying with him Saints’ realistic hopes of overturning Leicester Tigers and claiming a maiden league title.
With the added burden of missing the British and Irish Lions tour after the subsequent 11-week ban, Hartley headed off for a break from the game, unsure of where the introspection would take him. But the hooker’s passion for rugby runs deep in his Rotorua veins. He soon realised he could not face the prospect of not playing for Northampton and England.
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“As soon as you get away for two weeks, it’s mentally refreshing, [and you realise] there’s more to life than rugby,” said the 47-cap England man. “But another two weeks and you realise you really miss what you’re doing – you miss rugby."
“I’m thankful I made the right decision to stay playing and I’m hugely motivated to crack on with the season. I can only view it as ending positively. I’ve been through set-backs before but that makes you resilient. I feel like I can deal with most things, I’ve always come back better.”
Hartley is reinvigorated for the new campaign but after the fourth ban of his eight-year professional career, he knows he must repay the faith shown by those who continue to back him. That starts with his head coach at Northampton, Jim Mallinder, who took Hartley aback with his unerring support when they met to discuss whether he should continue as club captain.
Displaying the honesty, humility and club-first mentality which Mallinder so admires, Hartley continued: “I was confused at first but then it sunk in. It was a long afternoon of a lot of coffees, with back and forth chat.
“But it’s not like I held my hand up and said I’m the captain, he made the decision for me. I was almost anti it, I wanted to step down and let someone else take over. I thought with the new-look Saints, with our new signings, I didn’t really want my reputation hanging over the squad so I thought the right thing to do would be to step down.
“But he convinced me, he said 'You’re the man to lead this team, you’ve got the backing of everyone at the club.' I take confidence from that now as I look back on it.”
While excited by stellar new signings George North, Alex Corbisiero and Kahn Fotuali'I, Hartley is animated to point out the foundation provided by eight players promoted from the senior academy for this season.
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Hartley believes a series of solid, dependable performances skippering his club at the start of the season is the way to also acknowledge the support of Stuart Lancaster, who retained him in his latest England squad.
In a second frank meeting of the summer, the England Head Coach told Hartley there can be no exceptions for anyone in the squad as the journey to Rugby World Cup 2015 continues.
“I’ve got to repay some trust within the [England] setup,” Hartley added. “I understand that being a player is the most important bit, not being a good captain, but being a good rugby player and a good hooker, doing my job and just being consistent.
“I just play rugby and he picks players – you’ve just got to play well to have a chance of being involved. That’s all I’m thinking about at the moment.
“And the trust side of it, he made it pretty clear to me, and I understand this, that he can’t have blind faith in players. He can’t misplace that trust, so I can’t afford to mess up.”