The Big Interview: Dylan Hartley on captaincy, a Grand Slam and Eddie Jones

It should probably come as no surprise that a straight-talking former hooker would be the man to transform Dylan Hartley’s career.

It should probably come as no surprise that a straight-talking former hooker would be the man to transform Dylan Hartley’s career.

The Grand Slam-winning England captain makes no bones about it, Eddie Jones’ arrival was a turning point for him.

From missing out on the 2015 World Cup through suspension, to leading England to a clean sweep and a record run of 18 Test victories, the upswing in Hartley’s career coincides exactly with Jones taking the England job.

England had finished second in the Six Nations for four straight seasons but when Jones arrived fresh from shocking the world with Japan, they found the missing ingredient.

And for Hartley, named captain by Jones, it meant a third act in his career that he admits probably would not have happened otherwise.

He said: “For me it was a lifeline for my career. I’d been suspended from the 2015 World Cup so I wasn’t involved in that. I was at home and I’m very much a one door closes, another opens type of person. I’d had my first child and I think it was a nice time to step back from the whirlwind I was in.

“I enjoyed being at home with my new-born and I watched that tournament like any other person. It hurt because I’d been part of that squad building up to it, and it was a home World Cup and I wanted to be a part of it.

“Ultimately it turned out the way it did and I was thrown a lifeline by Eddie to save my international career. I knew this was my last shot to really give it a good crack in an England shirt. Eddie said to me you can win some things and you can leave a legacy for your family, you can do something good with your career so I went for it.

“We went on an 18-game unbeaten streak, we won two titles back-to-back, we had a season unbeaten, we had a tour in Australia and won down there for the first time in history and it taught me that if it’s worth doing, it’s incredibly hard.

“It made me think that the eight years prior to that, and the 70-odd games, I’d just been cruising along. Training hard, playing hard but not really capturing or understanding and stepping back and thinking what can I really achieve and what can we achieve as a team?

“It wasn’t until Eddie that the penny dropped. He gave me an ultimatum which I’m grateful for. When I look back at my career, everything I talk about now is the twilight success we had as a team. If it wasn’t for Eddie, would I have experienced those highs? Probably not. So him coming in was brilliant.

“He had inherited a team from Stuart Lancaster that was uber professional, well drilled, well trained and that could play the game and he changed a few little things, unlocked a couple of key doors in some of our heads and we experienced success which was unbelievable.”


England sealed that 2016 Grand Slam in Paris, a first clean sweep in the Championship since 2003, and a first title since 2011, with Hartley involved in the latter.

For Hartley, who readily admits that indiscipline dogged his career, that success allowed him a measure of vindication.

He said: “When the captaincy was handed my way, naturally it’s the sort of thing you think why me? The narrative in the press was certainly why me? Every presser or media thing I had to do, I had to talk about the disciplinary and do I trust myself? How do you set the example when your example is bad? That narrative followed me around for that whole tournament.

“And then we won the Grand Slam, that was the first time I could walk into a presser or a media conference and look people in the eye, I didn’t have to answer those questions anymore. That was sweet in that sense for me.”

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It was the culmination of a long journey for Hartley, who grew up in New Zealand with very little idea of what the Guinness Six Nations represents.

Born in Rotorua to an English mother, he arrived in England just as Sir Clive Woodward’s team were sweeping all before them.

He added: “I arrived on these shores and all I knew was All Blacks rugby, and Australia and South Africa. But England were hitting their straps at that time, it really captured me and suckered me in, which was good timing I suppose. That’s what winning a World Cup does for any nation, it inspires a generation. So, I was very fortunate that I got to watch that 02/03 England team be so successful.”

By 2008 he was part of the England team, making his debut in the Autumn Internationals before getting his first Championship experience against Italy off the bench the following February.

Two years later he was part of the first England team to lift the trophy since that 2003 side, although they missed out on the Grand Slam with defeat in Dublin in their final match.

That meant the trophy presentation had to wait until after France had played Wales in Paris, with a Welsh defeat confirming England’s position as champions.

Hartley recalls: “It was a strange one, it was in Dublin. I remember being at the after-match function and being presented the trophy. I’ve experienced that moment on both hands, winning and losing a final. It’s such sheer elation and relief.

“I didn’t appreciate it at the time because it was so early on in my career, I was two or three years in to being an England player. I was young and carefree and on the journey, on the ride. Winning and losing games is all just part of it.

“When you’re in it, you’re thinking about next week. You’re going back to your club, you’ve got another international game, the big old machine keeps churning. We celebrated it that night.

“It was fun at the time but I wish I’d really soaked it up and appreciated it for what it was. They are hard to do, it’s hard to win a Championship. I’m looking at Alun Wyn Jones and I think he’s on for his fourth Grand Slam if Wales go and win this tournament.

“When 2016 came around it was sheer relief. We’d been here so many times and off the back of the 2015 World Cup there was a lot of pent-up frustration and demons in the head or skeletons in the closet for some of the players. We exorcised a lot of bad when 2016 came around.”

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Unfortunately for Hartley, injury cut short his career, with Jones the man to deliver the news in the forthright manner that only he could.

That bluntness resonated with Hartley, who began to accept that he could no longer train to the level necessary to compete at international level.

Now he works as a pundit and admits there is an emotional weight that has been lifted, even if England’s defeat against Wales in Cardiff in Round 3 saw him waking up at four in the morning wondering what they could have done differently.

He concludes: “As a captain especially, or someone who cared about playing, I took a loss really badly. Even if I put a front on, as soon as I finished an interview I’d be thinking about it and I’d go downstairs and I’d be thinking about the game the whole time.

“You’d go for a family walk and be thinking ‘Monday morning, how are we going to fix this? What’s the tone for the week going to be?’. You’ve got to set the example so you constantly think about it. As soon as I retired it was liberating. A weight came off my shoulders, I didn’t have to think about anyone else anymore.

“It was a weight off my shoulders but for the first time, I woke up at 4 in the morning after the Wales game. I was emotionally involved in that game and I had to have a word with myself and say, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect you. But I suppose that is why sport is so special, it makes people feel, it makes people think.”