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Should Saints have retained Hartley as captain?

“Dylan has matured a great deal over the past few years…. He has learned from what happened at Twickenham.”

The words of Jim Mallinder as he announced today that Dylan Hartley will be the Northampton Saints captain for the fifth year in a row, despite being sent off the Aviva Premiership Final for questioning the referees integrity.

I have no reason to believe that Hartley has not matured, in fact watching him in action and seeing the way he behaves off the field and the leadership he shows on it, it is clear that he has. Equally, I have no reason to believe that he has not learned form the experience in that Premiership final, it would be hard not to.

However there must come a point where both the management of Saints and England must accept that no matter how much Hartley has matured and learned, no matter how many assurances he gives over his future conduct, there are times on the rugby field that he loses the ability to let sense dictate his actions and that it appears there is little that can be done about it.

This is the third offence resulting lengthy ban that Hartley has received; all were offences that are seen as not just objectionable (such as a punch) but utterly against the mystical ‘spirit of the game’.

First in 2007 he received a 26 week ban for gouging Wasps’ James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor, then in 2012 he was banned for eight weeks for biting Ireland’s Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations clash, in between times he had an allegation of gouging Scotland’s Ross Ford dropped after Ford elected not to raise a complaint.

Finally in the Premiership final this year he received his 11 week ban for calling referee Wayne Barnes a “f***ing cheat”.

Hartley is undoubtedly a fantastic rallying point for both his Northampton Saints and England colleagues and his leadership qualities and his work off the field are clearly excellent. It is no coincidence that when Chris Robshaw missed the 3rd test against South Africa last summer through injury it was Hartley that was asked to take over the captaincy duties.

There must come a point though where the management of both sides have make a point of making a point about the hooker’s actions. He must have come very close to losing the Northampton captaincy for as good a player and leader that he his, and no matter how much his personality was the driving force behind their push to the Premiership final last year, his actions do not befit those of the most senior playing employee of Northampton Saints.

Likewise with England, Stuart Lancaster has made a point of singling out those how do not meet his behavioural expectations, his banishing of Danny Care from the international scene when he first came into the job being the most obvious example.

However with Hartley Lancaster has twice ‘had discussions’ and ‘sought assurances’ from the players about his behaviour but as yet has yet to take any public stance. Whilst the wisdom of this from a playing perspective is hard to question, it does rather go against the grain of what Lancaster has said his ‘new England’ is all about.

Does this mean that I therefore think that Dylan Hartley’s selection as Northampton Saints captain and his inclusion in England’s latest EPS are wrong?

Not necessarily, but nor do I necessarily think they are the correct decisions – the luxury of not having to make the decisions.

I have no doubt that on merit he deserves to be in the England squad, nor do I have any doubt that he is the best leader in the Northampton Saints squad. What I do have doubts about is whether it is appropriate for him to be in either of those positions at present.

Finding the right option though is no easy task, his qualities demand that he be there yet there is a sense that point needs to be made, both to Hartley and to the rest of the rugby world about England and Northampton’s attitudes to his discretions. My solutions? I would have considered dropping him to the Saxons (where he is still effectively available to the England squad) and I would have perhaps shared the Saints’ captaincy with him and another player, later making it clear that he is the senior as the on field decision maker.

They are hardly ideal solutions though, and are certainly more shams to make a point than genuine punishments. It just shows the tough position Jim Mallinder and Stuart Lancaster have been placed in by their hooker. It is surely now very much last chance saloon.

Let us hope that they are right though, that Hartley has learned and matured and that he will avoid straying to that hot headed side of his on field personality in future. He is a fantastic player and one that neither England nor Northampton can afford to lose to suspension much more.

What is your opinion on Dylan Hartley’s actions in the Premiership Final? Should his club and country have taken more of a stand given that this is not his first major discretion? Do you think it even matters? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

By Angus Savage

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