Sunday 22 September 2019

Neil Francis: Dylan Hartley's first instinct is to bite, gouge or hit high and he deserves career-ending ban

Dylan Hartley is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces on Friday night
Dylan Hartley is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces on Friday night
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Sometime last season, after writing a piece on Dylan Hartley's unending thuggery on the rugby field, the player responded by calling me a snake. My psychiatrist tells me I may recover from this in a few years - I'm not so sure though. The sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the sense of emptiness. I'm not sure whether I will ever recover.

In Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Jekyll needs to drink a potion to turn himself into his alter ego, the evil sociopath Mr Hyde - a creature without compassion, empathy or remorse. Hartley is often described as a Jekyll & Hyde character, and doesn't need a potion or serum anymore. His recidivist behaviour on the rugby field shows that he has no regard for his own actions or for the personal safety of his opponents/victims. Getting sent off for his violent and dangerous behaviour is just an occupational hazard.

A number of issues need to be addressed here. In some sections of the media, Hartley's assault has been seen as "reckless". To my mind reckless means showing insufficient consideration and scant disregard for the consequences. Consideration never really enters Hartleys thought process, because it is and always has been his first instinct to bite, gouge, head-butt, punch or engage in dangerous head-high tackles. Not for one second did he ever consider anything else other than to line up Sean O'Brien - he knew exactly what he was going to do, because it is in his nature. It is engrained in him. It was anything but a reckless tackle.

The emphasis in most of the media a day after the match incredibly centred around Hartley's diminished chances of leading the Lions or being available for England's Six Nations campaign. After missing out on two previous World Cups and a Lions Tour, why would the press take this view that anything other than Hartley being banned from the Six Nations and the Lions Tour is anything other than good news.

Some in the media may choose to take the line that the authorities should "throw the rulebook at him". The problem here is that the rulebook doesn't contain anything that comes close to an appropriate punishment within its statutes. Nothing that would adequately punish Hartley for his crimes on the field. And an if eight-week ban is what is prescribed, Harley deserves 80.

My disdain for Hartley is only matched by that for the weak men who are called to judge and punish the player. There is zero chance that these people would show any courage of conviction to think outside the box on the hopelessly inadequate strictures of the current laws and give him a ban commensurate with the lack of respect he shows for the game and its players.

Suspensions do not act as a deterrent for Hartley. He is now 30 and it is imperative that he be kept off the rugby pitch for as long as possible until his career ends.

What we will get from the invertebrates is a ban which finishes the day before the England v France game on February 4, or if they are really, really serious, until the Wales v England on the February 11. It is obvious that Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland will want the player for their respective programmes, and history tells me that both of them will get their wish.

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Meanwhile, Sean O'Brien has to leave the field prematurely again - an incidental footnote to the whole affair. The fact that Hartley is incapable of constraining his monstrous on-field persona is well beyond doubt. What is still up for debate is whether somebody can put an end to his thuggery this week. A depressingly familiar tale of inaction and gutless juris pretence should be visited upon us by Wednesday evening.

The match itself? Well, a 37-10 score line suggests that the good times are back. This is far from the case. Leinster were good in spots, but made so many elementary mistakes when they had the ball, that you know that would be punished by a team that is not as out of sorts as Northampton.

The English outfit were truly awful and have continued their bad run into the European Cup. You would question whether they have the wherewithal to do what they did three years ago in the Aviva. Pride, though, is a prime motivating force and I would think a twitchy, nervous encounter rather than another five-pointer would be on the cards next Saturday.

As for Munster, I suspect there is now real validity in the notion that they have found themselves again. A comprehensive performance, organised and ruthless, with a murderous intensity at the breakdown. They literally did what they wanted in this phase of the game. Munster's back row were vastly superior in every aspect and as long as Stander and O'Mahony are fit, they will be in contention.

Leicester for all their pedigree and heritage should be ashamed of themselves for that performance; you at least expect them to get stuck in. They gave a performance that looked like they were pretending that they were up for it. But when it came to the crunch, they crumbled mentally. They dealt poorly with a barrage of box kicks from the imperious Conor Murray, often letting the ball bounce with no one willing to claim it.

This lot were a pale imitation of former Leicester sides. They allowed themselves to be bullied at the breakdown and they turned the ball over 15 times. They could not protect their own ball and did not show any conviction getting into the breakdown.

To contend, you have to contest. Leicester's spiritual malaise was reflected in their indiscipline and three yellow cards. They are not out of it yet, but it will take a dramatic reversal of fortune to recover from yesterday's humiliation.

The moment of the game came in the 57th minute. Darren Sweetnam, who looked tricky all afternoon, kept on running in an attack down the right hand side. He would feint and not commit and none of the Leicester players seemed like they wanted to tackle him, and so he kept running and when the tackle eventually did come from Tom Youngs, Sweetnam threw a delicious over-the-shoulder, out-of-the-corner-of-his-eye offload which was picked up by the very impressive Jaco Taute to score Munster's third try, on the way to a bonus-point victory in a non-contest.

Munster have found their mojo, and another full house is guaranteed on St Stephen's Day, for Leinster's visit. Yesterday was a good day for the Irish.

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