Wednesday 18 October 2017

Gatland erred by selecting thug Hartley in first place

Disgraced England star should already be serving a lifetime ban for his crimes, insists Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I have a T-shirt at home that I bought on Canal Street in Manhattan. The message is quite direct: 'F*** you, yeh f***ing f***.' I don't wear it, I haven't thrown it away either. I'll wear it in the nursing home when I'm 85.

The f-word really has lost a lot of its punch. Because of its global vernacular, it really is just a bland reinforcement or verbal garnish to the point being made.

You could call a referee a f***ing w***er under your breath, he probably knows anyway, but you cannot look at a referee and call him a cheat, or indeed a f***ing cheat.

In sport, and especially in rugby union, there is a defined value system. A winning mentality is important, but players must espouse strongly held core values. They must adhere to moral and ethical principles. Prime amongst these in contact sport is unconditional respect for the referee on the paddock. The individual or his personality is not what is at issue.

A wonderful example of why respect must be unquestioning came in the series Band of Brothers where Colonel Dick Winters was sitting on a jeep at an airstrip before a military operation in WW2. The highly unpopular Captain Sobel, who had lorded it over the then Lieutenant Winters back at base camp, had tried to scuttle by without saluting the war-hero and highly respected and decorated Colonel. Winters stopped him, called him to attention and said, "Captain Sobel, you salute the rank, not the man." It doesn't matter if its Inspector Clouseau out there with the whistle in his hand, there has to be recognition and respect for the offices of the arbiter.

Referees have to demonstrate unimpeachable integrity and cold neutrality in the 80 minutes they are on the field. There has to be accountability, consistency and honesty. Humility too – nothing worse than a refereeing diva.

Has a referee ever called a perfect game? No, the game is too complex. Certainly the referee here in question, Wayne Barnes, has made controversial and game-changing decisions throughout his career – brave decisions. He is a good referee. To call him a "f***ing cheat" to his face is a dereliction of the first duty of a rugby player. To show that lack of respect means you have no respect for the game itself. To impugn the character of the person charged with order of the game is despicable, that is of course if you have a sense of perspective on what is despicable.

Let's take a quick peek at the man calling Barnes' character into question.

In 2007, Dylan Hartley was suspended for 26 weeks for eye-gouging in a match against Wasps. That act is so vile and contrary to the ethos of the game that I think a lifetime ban is the requisite punishment. It kind of takes your breath away when you realise that it was not a solitary incident. In fact, Hartley had gouged James Haskell (an England colleague) and Johnny O'Connor (Connacht's international flanker) – not one, but two victims – a cold-blooded act and then repeated the crime again on another victim, in the same game. 26 weeks? 26 years!

In 2008, in a match against Scotland, Hartley clearly sticks his finger into Ross Ford's eye. It is not reported and Hartley gets away with it. In 2012, Hartley is banned for eight weeks for biting Stephen Ferris, another insidious act. He actually got 12 weeks but this was reduced to eight. Later that year, he gets two weeks for a cheap shot drop punch on Rory Best of all people.

Then we had last week's tour de force.

What has amazed me about Hartley's career so far is what he hasn't been cited and suspended for. Getting caught dealing out dirty cheap shots seems only to be an occupational hazard. I think he is a scumbag. Sorry, I think he is a f***ing scumbag.

The problem with people like Hartley is that they don't know where the boundary of what is acceptable is. Most rugby players know what constitutes acceptable play. We are heading to a very dangerous place when you gouge, bite and punch opponents and only desist when these annoying commissioners cite you for it. Sometimes you don't desist at all and carry on regardless.

Hartley's version of events on the field in the Aviva Premiership final told a tale. Aware that the chances of making the Lions tour were in serious trouble, he pretended his comments had been directed at Tom Youngs, his hooking opponent for the Leicester Tigers. Youngs would also have been a travelling companion with Hartley for the upcoming Lions tour of Australia. The indignation of it if Hartley was to room with Youngs – you couldn't possibly room with a "f***ing cheat". Good for player relations and morale on tour.

Hartley's explanation changed somewhat at his hearing when he altered his story. The comment apparently was spoken to his team-mate Soane Tonga'uiha, who was standing between him and Barnes. The film footage shows that Hartley did not look down at Youngs when he uttered his words. Barnes knew exactly who he was saying it to and was unequivocal at the hearing. Hartley's version of events was thrown out as the rubbish it was. "In our view this is not a credible explanation."

This brings us on to the Lions and the selection of Hartley in the first place. After Hartley's hearing for biting Stephen Ferris in 2012, it transpired that he got a glowing reference from England's forward coach Graham Rowntree. Hartley, it seems, "was very close to having been made captain and might well soon become". He was described by Rowntree and the Northampton coach Jim Mallinder as "a beacon and a leader" and "no-one had more credibility with his peers".

I would have to seriously question these two if they thought that Hartley should be put forward as captain of England. Hartley was captain of Northampton when he was dismissed last week. A role model? A setter of example? A leader of people? When you are appointed captain you are perceived as the best man. You are charged with the responsibility to show good example. There is a presumption that there is probity and fitness to act in that capacity. Captain of England?

You are certain Chris Robshaw has the right stuff. Rowntree obviously likes Hartley.

In February 2011, Warren Gatland made a stinging personal criticism of Dylan Hartley. In the pre-match preamble, Gatland questioned

Hartley's character and stated Hartley had an "explosive temper" and that he "choked" and "cracked under pressure." It was an astonishing outburst and it backfired spectacularly on Gatland as Hartley had an exceptional game and England beat Wales that day. They shook hands at the post-match dinner but there was no love lost between the two.

Over the last two seasons, England put in strong performances and finished second in the Six Nations in successive seasons. They also thrashed the world champions in Twickenham. If quotas were to be observed, that meant Wales would dominate the squad and England would have more on the plane than Ireland because they had beaten them twice in a row. England had fewer Lions-class players than Ireland but they would by right get more on the plane. Rowntree had a big say in selection. Matt Stevens out of nowhere and a huge gamble, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs as well as Dylan Hartley – no Rory Best. It hardly seemed rational. Gatland had the final say.

Days after the 11-week ban that Hartley received, Gatland is quoted as saying that "Hartley made a poor judgement call". With respect Wazza I think you made a poor judgement call. Given the history, given Hartley's rap sheet and his temperament, his selection was always going to backfire on the Lions. They are just lucky it happened before the plane took off.

I may be wrong but I suspect that Rory Best may well be the Test hooker in the squad. How do you reconcile that, not good enough to go, to being favourite for the Test slot.

It will never happen but the IRB should do more than just "address" the issue of consistent thuggery from players. A select committee that has the power to intervene when weak sentences are handed out to habitual offenders. Years instead of weeks or months. If they don't see the necessity for something like this, the question you have to ask is what will the thugs be doing to the referees in 10 years' time?

Irish Independent

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