“There will come a point when they can’t stand by me,” admitted Northampton Saints hooker Dylan Hartley.
It is the start of 2013 and the England international is attempting to rebuild his reputation once again following a suspension for striking Ulster’s Rory Best.
This incident had followed a 26-week ban for gouging Wasps’ James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor in 2007 and another two-month lay-off for biting Ireland’s Stephen Ferris during the 2012 Six Nations.
“I understand that trust can only go so far," he continued, “I wouldn’t expect them to stand by me if I continued to break that trust.”
Just a few short months later he was sidelined again – this time for 11 weeks – for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes during the Saints’ Premiership final defeat to Leicester, although he insists that his Tigers rivals were the target of his venom.
This prompted more introspection and what appeared to be a final warning from England coach Stuart Lancaster.
“People can’t keep giving me a chance and I’m basically on my last chance in the England set-up, that’s fully understood,” said Hartley ahead of his comeback the following season.
During the course of the campaign he would return to the headlines for all the right reasons as he helped steer Northampton to an historic first Premiership title that cemented his status as England’s number one No.2.
Hartley appeared to have found a winning blend of peace and high performance – until last month.
The red mist descended once more in the Saints’ clash with Leicester last month when a vicious elbow floored the Tigers’ Matt Smith following an altercation at a ruck.
It was suspected that this latest moment of madness would sideline Hartley for the start of the Six Nations but a three-week ban kept him in the mix and turned the focus well and truly on Lancaster whose tough stance on ill-discipline, and credibility, is being tested by one of his leading players – not for the first time as target “new” scrum-half Danny Care will testify
Unsurprisingly, ‘a conversation’ between the two followed, the full extent of which will become apparent in the coming weeks when Lancaster names his squad for the Six Nations on January 21 and then his side to tackle Wales in the Championship opener on February 6.
If message sent down by the England management and relayed by Hartley is to be believed then can we expect the hooker to be cast aside? It is not that simple.
Lancaster has long spoken of the need for a certain level of experience throughout his squad if they are to make a serious challenge for the Rugby World Cup having noted that key element in the success of those who have already scaled those heights.
He will also be painfully aware that Hartley is the most experienced player in his current squad and by some way with 61 Test caps to his name. That experience could prove invaluable to England with Care and flanker James Haskell, neither of whom started the final November international clash against Australia, the only others players to have reached a half century of Test caps.
The issue is also complicated by the fact that Hartley is also arguably the best hooker at his disposal, although perhaps unsurprisingly Leicester boss Richard Cockerill insists Tigers hooker Tom Youngs is ‘in a different league’ to both his Saints rival and England’s other current option, Bath’s Rob Webber.
But not even Cockerill cannot deny England’s lineout in particular has been a tower of strength of late and a lot of credit must go to Hartley who started nine Tests for England last year and appeared off the bench in two more.
As a result, any decision to cast him aside could seem rather reckless as we embark on arguably the most important year in the history of English rugby that will culminate with the hosting of a World Cup that, along with a successful England side, will hopefully fuel unprecedented growth in terms of players, coaches, fans and volunteers. But can Lancaster risk a high-profile meltdown in a crucial World Cup clash that offers a rival a priceless advantage and potentially jeopardises the tournament’s legacy?
Hartley has previously worked with sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters but more recently has insisted he has no need for such a specialist, so how does Lancaster choose to handle him if he is retained within the squad?
A fascinating insight was recently offered by England’s World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward who highlighted the benefits of a ‘buddy’ system during his tenure in charge of the national side.
“You became responsible not only for your actions, but also your buddy’s. If something kicked off, they would go in straight away and defuse the situation,” he wrote in The Daily Mail. “The big personalities might not have liked it, but it was absolutely critical.”
As the most senior player in England’s ranks, Hartley may not exactly welcome being told what to do but the presence of several Saints team-mates in the international set-up may make it a more viable option.
With such a chequered disciplinary record you can rest assured that his opponents will continue to prod and poke in the hope of sending him over ‘the edge’ that Saints boss Jim Mallinder accepts his captain plays on.
Wales coach Warren Gatland famously launched a verbal grenade ahead of their Six Nations clash with England back in 2011 in an attempt to rattle his fellow Kiwi. He spoke of how he had seen Hartley ‘go to pieces’ while playing for Northampton hoping to trigger a similar performance but the hooker did not buckle and went on to play a key role in a 26-19 victory in Cardiff.
Unfortunately, Hartley’s reaction to such pressure has not always been so composed.
A particularly scathing piece written recently by an Irish journalist suggested Hartley would continue to offend until he was ‘booted out of the game’. It prompted the Saints star to take to Twitter where he labelled such critics who ‘hide away writing opinion and not fact, never to be held accountable’ as ‘snakes’.
The fact he appears to have been rattled by just one of many opinion pieces that have examined his behaviour will not only encourage those looking to unsettle him on the field but will also do little to reassure Lancaster that his latest ‘conversation’ with Hartley successfully underlined what was expected of him.
With England understood to have viewed Hartley’s latest transgression as an act of petulance rather than barbarism, he appears set to avoid the axe completely but he may well lose the No.2 shirt for the Six Nations opener against Wales to the in-form Youngs.
Hartley’s demotion would serve as yet another reminder that such indiscipline will not be tolerated and should refocus his mind ahead of a huge year while protecting the credibility Lancaster has built up since restoring England’s respectability and revitalising the culture within the squad.