Friday 19 January 2018

More Saint than sinner

Northampton's captain has lost his 'most hated' tag, writes Anna Kessel

D ylan Hartley admits to having had sleepless nights this week, lying awake in bed thinking about the magnitude of today's Heineken Cup semi-final between Northampton and Perpignan.

The New Zealand-born Hartley grew up in the farmlands of Rotorua, where club rules dictated playing rugby barefoot until the age of 11. "I remember playing on frosty pitches barefoot," he says, smiling, "running down the lines just thinking that they were a bit warmer. It was old school."

At home his English mother shared her memories of the old country. "She used to tell me that pork pies were really nice, but I tried one and they are horrible. Scotch eggs on the other hand . . ." He smiles. It was his English grandmother who had the best stories. "She speaks like the Queen -- it's awesome, she's very posh," he says.

At 16, Hartley moved halfway across the world to England, all on his own.

He leans forward, eagerly remembering his first call-up to train at an England camp. "I'd got the train and tube to Twickenham and I had my beach shorts and my flip-flops on as well as a big traveller's backpack. I didn't know anyone and I turned up and there were all these kids in blazers and chinos and I'm there like some traveller off the street."

Hartley is an enigmatic character -- charming when he wants to be, and likable, so why is he sometimes dubbed the most hated man in rugby?

"I've heard that," says the 25-year-old Saints captain. "Some people have obviously got a lot of hatred for me. I think I just get under people's skin. It's part of my game. I'm annoying -- maybe -- to play against." Why? "I don't know. I think there's a lot of people that jump on the bandwagon."

That bandwagon started when Hartley hit the headlines after being banned for 26 weeks for gouging -- missing the 2007 World Cup. He gained a reputation as a hothead, easy to goad, a perception that has persisted despite the player visiting a psychologist to help with his temperament. Even this year he was targeted with a series of jibes from the Wales and Scotland coaches, Warren Gatland and Andy Robinson, during the Six Nations in an attempt to unsettle him.

"Before that Wales game a lot of people had this thing about coming for me: 'Oh wind Hartley up, he'll bite'. Hartley hits back and I'm made out to be the enemy. If you poke a -- I won't say a bear because I don't want to be compared to a bear . . . but I'm not going to rise [any more], it's pointless. And that's taken me four years to get rid of, since 2007, so I've done the hard time."

Hartley says he was targeted ahead of the Heineken Cup games against Cardiff Blues last December, when he and his opposite number, Gareth Williams, were sinbinned for fighting in the first match and Hartley was the victim of gouging in the second. "We had a message within the camp . . . the nice thing was that in the team meeting before the game some of the lads were saying: 'We've gotta look after Dyls 'cos they're gonna be coming for him'. Just as England looked out for me [in the Six Nations]. You protect your own, don't you?"

When the Six Nations came around a few weeks later, Gatland labelled Hartley a choker after he had declined to "step outside" with Williams post-match to resolve their differences. "That was just silly," says Hartley, shaking his head, "there was no way I was going to walk out the back of a stand and have a fight with someone."

After all the hard work he had undergone with the psychologist Steve Peters, who profiled Ian Huntley in the Soham murders case, how did it feel to be baited once more? "It's tiresome," Hartley says, wearily. "Tiresome. It's like, stop punching me please."

Back home in New Zealand, his English grandmother was unimpressed. "My grandma reads about it all, she follows everything on the computer so she obviously gets a bit offended. She's my biggest fan and the team's biggest fan."

There is a pause and his restlessness returns. "Let's talk about lunch. One more question." Was seeing a sports psychologist life-changing? "No," he says firmly. "But the ban [in 2007] was." Why? "Because if you do something like that again your career is over."

Before he can escape we talk about the semi-final against Perpignan, the one that has been causing him sleepless nights.

"It's the biggest game we've played in. I was just lying in bed thinking about the first scrum and how the crowd's going to be, the feeling of winning. I remember when Dicko [Lee Dickson] scored a try here in the quarter-final and being head on head, almost kissing Chris [Ashton], screaming at each other. The sheer, like, feeling, the relief, the release -- of pressure, I suppose. It's exciting."

He nods.

"These chances don't come around every year. The group of players that we've got want to take what's in front of us. We don't want to wait any longer."

And with that he's off. Off to lunch, off to watch the royal wedding and off to prepare for the biggest game of his life.


Northampton v Perpignan,

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