Saints skipper Hartley hails England’s ‘slick’ class of 2013

GEARING UP FOR THE FRENCH - Dylan Hartley
GEARING UP FOR THE FRENCH - Dylan Hartley

Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell sat in the bedroom they share at England’s Surrey headquarters on Wednesday night and watched a rerun of last year’s landmark triumph over France in Paris.

It is a sign of how much progress has been made in the 12 months since that 24-22 victory that Hartley described that England as virtually unrecognisable from their current selves.

The drive and dogged determination that has underpinned Stuart Lancaster’s England regime was there to see but, Hartley and Farrell mused, it was all they had.

On Saturday, England lock horns with France again having followed up their autumn victory over New Zealand by defeating Scotland and Ireland in contrasting styles.

England took their attacking game to a new level against Scotland, with Farrell playing flat to the line. Against Ireland it was control and high-pressure defence that won the day.

England’s intent to match the French physicality in the set-piece and gain-line battles led directly to recalls for Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi.

“Owen Farrell and I room together and we sat and watched last year’s France-England game over a cup of tea and we said ‘we’re so much better than we were then’,” Hartley said.

“We weren’t a good team, but what we did have was a drive and a kind of collective determination that they were not going to beat us - as we did that whole tournament last year.

“The detail wasn’t there as to how to run moves and shape and all these pretty things. We just had a good ‘dogged’ effort.

“If we can bring that same mentality tomorrow with the detail and attacking shape - people understanding running lines and knowing where they’re supposed to be - and all the prettier things we’ve been working on over the last six months then we can definitely get a result I think.

“Now I think we’re a much slicker outfit.”

Hartley missed the QBE autumn international series through injury and had to bide his time on the bench behind Tom Youngs for the first two rounds of the Six Nations.

But Youngs wobbled in the Aviva Stadium cauldron and, with the set-piece battle a key focus for England, Hartley is ready to take his chance.

“We’ve talked a lot this week about set piece,” Hartley said.

“Against Ireland we had a quarter of the game where we lost four or five set-pieces in a row. I’ve had to bide my time and wait for an opportunity. This is it. It is now my shirt to lose.”

France have made their worst start to a championship in 31 years and England’s Six Nations record against Les Bleus is strong, with five wins from their last six encounters.

But Hartley had a word of caution.

“I wouldn’t say they’ve been awful. They’ve lost two games, as we did in the autumn when we came back to beat the All Blacks,” he said.

“We’ve got to be very wary of that. A lot of people talk about how unpredictable they can be. We’ve seen things from their camp saying this is their Grand Slam match, if they can beat us everything is forgiven.

“They can be so dangerous. They have big ball carriers across the back row, a solid front row, dangers out wide.

The preparation this week has been all about how we’re going to win. If we can control that, we can control the game and win.

“We need to keep building on our defence, which has been a rock for us in this tournament.

“We need to strangle them with our defence, not let the likes of Louis Picamoles and Thierry Dusautoir into the game.

“And if we can stop the big ball carriers with offloading abilities we can definitely get stuck in.”