Saints star Hartley caps remarkable journey in Grand style

The closing stages of Dylan Hartley's first Six Nations campaign as England captain were almost a microcosm of his career.

Sunday, 20th March 2016, 12:56 pm
Updated Sunday, 20th March 2016, 1:07 pm
Dylan Hartley

First, a decision in the heat of the moment - this time it was a courageous, but unfortunate tackle rather than a costly card - seemed to have robbed him of the chance to sit back and enjoy his achievements.

He was stretchered off, with many fearing that he was down and out - just as they had when suspensions cost him a place on a Lions tour and at a World Cup.

But once again he rose like Lazarus to confound the doubters, marching back on the field to give one last teamtalk and to lift the Six Nations trophy his Herculean effort during the tournament had merited.

It was the fitting end to a five-game campaign that has helped Hartley totally banish all of the talk that suggested he was an unsuitable candidate for the captaincy.

In some quarters his appointment was as welcome as Jeremy Hunt at a meeting of junior doctors.

Some had felt his disciplinary record, which totalled more than a year of suspensions, made him too unreliable.

And you could not necessarily blame them.

But those who knew him best - Jim Mallinder, his director of rugby at Saints, Tom Wood, his team-mate for club and country, and the coaches who had helped develop him over the years - all knew he would make a fine England skipper.

And they were to be the ones proved right.

Their words of praise and backing were fully justified by England’s first Grand Slam since 2003.

And not just that, Hartley and new head coach Eddie Jones had rebuilt a group of players shattered by last year’s World Cup woe on home soil.

The size of that task should not be underestimated.

Jones and Hartley were a fresh brush wiping away the agony, bit by bit.

They helped lift a man like Chris Robshaw, who had borne the brunt of the criticism after the World Cup.

And they helped to integrate players like Maro Itoje and Paul Hill, who will be the future of this country’s national team.

Wood gave a long appraisal of Hartley before the Six Nations began, describing his leadership abilities and commending his quality of getting the best out of people.

He said he was no Winston Churchill when it came to speeches, instead preferring to quietly go about his business.

And that is what he has done, eventually completing a mission of which even Churchill himself would be proud.

Hartley’s hard work has returned England to the right path.

He was so key to creating a winning culture during his six years as skipper at Saints - and history now appears to be repeating itself on an even grander scale.

And how proud Northampton is that it is their man who lifted that silverware in Paris on Saturday, ending and starting a remarkable journey in style.