Hartley ready to live up to bogeyman reputation
Two days ago, Dylan Hartley could be found in front of his computer screen, mugging up on the exploits of the great basketball player Michael Jordan, one of his heroes.
"Seeing what it meant to him to win things; how much time and perseverance he put in and how much pain he went through, to reach the top and stay there – I find that mindset very interesting," explained the England hooker. Especially, he added with a wistful smile, as he had yet to lay his own front-rower's hands on any of rugby's glittering prizes.
Those who think the Northampton captain might have been better employed viewing footage of last year's Six Nations scrummaging conflict with Wales in Cardiff – a battle within a battle that went the way of the home side, along with every other phase of the game – are entitled to their opinion, but as the set-piece protocols have changed completely in the space of 12 months, Hartley can surely be forgiven.
"What did we learn technically from that match? Nothing, really, because the laws are different and the scrum has developed so much," he said.
If there were things taken on board as a result of that gruesome defeat at the Millennium Stadium, they were of the "bigger picture" variety, according to England's most experienced forward. "From our point of view, that was the complete, all-round bad performance," he said. "I don't think you've seen anything like that from us since, so it has been good to carry it around in the back of the mind, for fear of it happening again."
Hartley has some history with the Welsh, whom he puts in a class of their own when it comes to generating anti-English sentiment. Back in 2011, the last time England beat them in a Six Nations fixture, he was the target of one of Warren Gatland's verbal grenades – a carefully directed attack designed to destabilise one of the more combustible characters in the Red Rose set-up.
If the calculated nature of the criticism took some people aback, it merely served to intensify Hartley's desire. That night in Cardiff, he was nothing short of terrific.
Plenty has happened since. Gatland, who has always rated his fellow Kiwi, if truth be told, selected him for last summer's Lions tour of Australia, only to lose him in a thick cloud of disciplinary controversy.
Hartley's startling dismissal during the Premiership final between Northampton and Leicester at Twickenham, for venting his spleen in the direction of the referee Wayne Barnes, left him contemplating the ruins of bright sporting career rather than a three-Test series against the Wallabies.
There was no guarantee at the time that he would set about the necessary rebuilding work, but after due deliberation and many conversations with the people he most trusts, he decided to give it another go.
If Hartley has achieved bogeyman status in Welsh eyes, just as the equally fiery Brian Moore did before him, it is unlikely to cost him a moment's sleep.
The more volatile the occasion, the more he relishes it. Indeed, he puts the England-Wales fixture in an extra-special category of rugby rivalries, alongside Test matches between the All Blacks and the Wallabies and the annual State of Origin rugby league rumbles in Australia. (© Independent News Service)