Friday 13 December 2019

Neil Francis: Appointment of Dylan Hartley is an insult to rugby's forgotten code of decency

'What goes through Hartley’s mind when he attempts to disgorge the contents of another man’s eye socket?' Photo: AFP/Getty
'What goes through Hartley’s mind when he attempts to disgorge the contents of another man’s eye socket?' Photo: AFP/Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." - R. L. Stevenson

'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'

You may or may not know that I captained Leinster once and Ireland once. Niall Hogan missed his flight to Swansea to play the Ospreys and after much pained deliberation as to who should wear the captain's armband - including considering giving the armband to Johnny O'Hagan, our bagman - I was given the honour, probably on the basis of what I would say in my captain's post-match speech.

In 1994 when Brendan Mullin got injured playing against the American Eagles, I was pack leader and vice-captain and so assumed command. There was wide-eyed horror in the committee box when they all saw me point to the posts for a penalty kick at goal. It was like the moment when Ronnie Reagan got shot and General Al Haig stepped up at the press conference to say, 'I am in charge'. There was a couple of trillion dollars wiped off the stock market in minutes. I haven't checked it but I think I am the only player in Irish rugby history to have a 100 per cent record as a captain for province and country!

My book Captain Frantastic - the secret to successful leadership will not be appearing any time soon in good or bad bookshops nationwide.

Throughout my career I have often had pause for thought to reflect on the men and boys who were given the singular honour of captaining their team. Whatever about all the qualities required to take on the task, one thing is certain: you have to have an aptitude for the job. Particularly at representative level in a team of 15 or a squad of 23 alpha males, you have to be absolutely certain of your values and yourself.

Preparing yourself for a Test match or competitive match is the most selfish thing you can do. Responsibility for your own performance is down to you alone. Yes, you are a component in an eight-man pack or a backline and you observe and perform to the team dynamic. Well, the team dynamic is someone else's responsibility - the captain's. It is an onerous responsibility.

I think rugby captains are unique in team sport. There is no other sport where a captain has such a pivotal role and important input. More often than not it is obvious who the captain in a group will be. He always stands out.

It is a given that he is a quality player and always worth his place. He is an organiser, a positive thinker, a mentor and a motivator. He must be able to engender an atmosphere of easy co-operation. He must understand the game better than most of his team-mates and he must be able to think and talk under pressure.

Are we romantics or old-fashioned to think that our captain should show strong moral character and set a good example? That they should be the barometer of the team and have clarity of conscience whenever it is challenged?

And so year after year as the game evolves the degeneracy of the moral code of union continues apace. Worrying trends, salacious revelations, inactions by governing bodies, unacceptable behaviours, creeping boorishness, cynical performances and a numbing lack of accountability by those charged to uphold and protect. A tipping point was reached last week.

No one was the least bit surprised by the announcement that Dylan Hartley would captain England in this year's RBS Six Nations Championship. It is the way things come to pass in the sporting public domain. All the way over Christmas we were drip-fed soundbites from semi-official sources that Dylan Hartley would be a strong candidate for the captaincy of the England rugby team. Plant the seed, say it often enough and then you become conditioned to the notion that the idea of installing him as English captain is not as preposterous as it seems. A six-week whispering campaign harvests Hartley as England's captain with barely a whimper from the English media.

Stuart Lancaster, a decent and honest man who showed strength by keeping Hartley out of his squad, is derided as weak for doing so. Now we are fed the line that "Hartley's uncompromising approach to playing rugby" will galvanise England and give them back their edge. Chris Robshaw's leadership was singularly lacking on a confrontational basis. In reality, poor decision-making cost him the captaincy. Robshaw was also an uncompromising forward but I could never see him gouging a prone player's eye or biting somebody or calling a referee a "f**king cheat".

There is no point in going over what Hartley has or hasn't done in his career. What is at issue here is how the RFU could actually let somebody like Hartley represent them as the captain of their national team. How an assembly of men could acquiesce to his promotion! There is no doubt in my mind that his candidacy would have to have been ratified at committee level.

In the greater world they say that for evil to happen all it needs is for 'just' men to do nothing. Surely given the grave nature of Hartley's actions over his entire career somebody would have had the courage, or felt duty-bound, to object.

Problem recognition is at issue here too. Most of the English media pointed to the fact that Hartley's problem is 'a lack of discipline'. A most inappropriate term as it suggests that if Hartley kept his cool that these urges to gouge someone's eyes would not manifest. Are we to think that most rugby players are homicidal maniacs and when they get stoked up on a rugby field they lose their sense of right and wrong? Is it not disturbing to think that the only thing stopping Hartley from his thuggish impulses is a paper-thin sense of discipline?

What goes through Hartley's mind when he attempts to disgorge the contents of another man's eye socket? "Yeah, discipline's gone, have some of my finger in your eye."

Another aspect of Hartley's crimes is the unresolved anger and lack of remorse. The only regret is getting caught and getting sanctioned - occupational hazard.

In sport or civilised society if we cannot gauge what is acceptable behaviour and don't impose adequate sanction the precedent set means that in five or ten years' time our sense of outrage gives way to apathy and inaction.

The Americans have a direct and unwavering way of dispensing justice. If a criminal commits a serious crime they jail him, if he reoffends they jail him again. Three strikes though and you are out - they put you in jail for the rest of your life. They do this on the basis that your behaviour is recidivist. Rather than let you offend six or seven times they take you off the streets for good. You will never change.

Hartley, year in, year out, has committed acts of foul play that are completely unacceptable. Bans and token bans were not going to solve the problem. He should have got a lifetime ban a few years ago. Surely his previous crimes would preclude him from being installed to the prestige of the captaincy. How is it possible to think that he could set good example for . . . anyone?

Our sense of equity, fairness and moral order are impugned now by the promotion of this player to the rank of captain. The fairest and the best? A model of excellence? A role model for young boys? A moral compass? Do as I do!

The John Terry School of Ethics and Standards prevails. How could they have made such a decision? Shame on them all!

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