Ranking a Rugby Rogue: 5 Shades of Dylan Hartley
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New Zealand-born Dylan Hartley has had a long and storied rugby career; unfortunately, you'll have to find many of those stories in the horror section.
The controversial Northampton, England and would-be Lions hooker has once again landed in hot water this week.
If one went down the list of the worst possible offences a rugby player, at any level, could commit, it might include such skulduggery as: sucker-punching, biting, eye-gouging and abusing officials.
To have all of these offences wrapped up within the career of one shameful individual is a rare find, indeed.
With this in mind, let us remind ourselves of the dark and winding road that has led us to this latest disgrace; a moment's loss of control that lost Hartley's team the 2013 Premiership Grand Final and has also, it seems, cost him the opportunity of a lifetime.
Dylan Hartley: The Eyes Have It
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Hartley fell into the world of rugby criminality at an early age.
In 2007, at the tender age of 21, Hartley was issued a six-month ban for eye-gouging.
His citation complaint accused him of making purposeful and illegal contact with the eyes of not one, not two but three London Wasps players, during a Premiership match in April of that year.
The RFU disciplinary hearing considered only two of the accusations substantial enough to warrant punishment, but nevertheless handed Hartley—who at that point had not yet broken into the England squad—one of the longest bans in its history.
Judge Jeff Blackett, chairman of the three-man RFU panel, gave the following comments to the BBC following the hearing:
Contact with an opponent's eyes is a serious offence because of the vulnerability of the area and risk of permanent injury. It is often the result of an insidious act and is one of the most abhorred by rugby players.
Judge Blackett added that the panel had originally decided 30 weeks was an appropriate punishment, but reduced it to 26 "after taking into account his good character, youth and inexperience."
That Hartley was young at the time is a matter of record.
That he had good character was a matter of opinion.
His further experience with foul play, as it would turn out, would only be a matter of time.
Dylan Hartley: Sinned But Not Binned
One of the normal difficulties when dealing with an eye-gouging complaint is the difficulty in finding video or photographic evidence. Such offences usually occur amidst a mass of bodies on the pitch, in a maul or some similarly concealed situation.
Such was not the case in a 2010 Six Nations match between England and Scotland, when Hartley's hands were clearly caught on tape, as they dug into the face and eyes of Scotland hooker Ross Ford.
In France, where England was due to arrive the following week, the French management were outraged. Just weeks prior, France had lost two of its own internationals, Julien Dupuy (23 weeks) and David Attoub (70 weeks), for similar offences.
"It's incredible that he has not been cited," said then France head coach Marc Lièvremont, whose comments were recorded in The Telegraph.
However, despite his great escape, Dylan Hartley was not finished demonstrating his capacity for the incredible.
Dylan Hartley: A Taste For Trouble
Roughly two years after the non-incident with Ross Ford, Hartley was cited for biting—that's right sports fans, biting—in a 2012 international match against Ireland.
Although, once again, there was no video evidence of the offence, Irish flanker Stephen Ferris can be seen on camera pointing at Hartley after a ruck. During the next break in play, Ferris approaches referee Nigel Owens, makes his complaint and shows him the marks on his hand, resulting in a stern warning from Owens.
Once again, a three-man discipline review panel convened after the match.
Ironically, Hartley escaped with an eight-week ban, in part because of his "official" record of good behaviour in the five intervening years since his ban for eye-gouging.
Jim Mallinder, director of rugby at Northampton and Graham Rowntree, England's forwards coach, were both present to speak on Hartley's behalf at his hearing. Rowntree's comments were recorded in The Guardian:
We are looking forward to him being available for the tour to South Africa. It is unfortunate for Dylan and Northampton, especially as he was in good form during the Six Nations and he has developed as a player and a leader.
Hartley, by this time, had indeed been promoted to Captain of the Northampton Saints. His leadership of that club, in their 2013 Aviva Premiership Finals appearance, is the topic of our final slide; before we get there, however, there is a remaining Dylan Hartley moment which begs our attention.
It is a moment which, only now, is being seen in its full ironic glory.
Dylan Hartley: To Beat The Best...
In early December of 2012, Hartley's Northampton club was battling Irish side Ulster at their home ground of Franklin's Gardens.
During a period of Northampton pressure in the Ulster end, Hartley was caught on video issuing multiple MMA style elbow blows to the head of his opposite number, Rory Best.
Hartley, who received no punishment at the time, was cited and subsequently suspended for two weeks, after pleading guilty to the offence.
Ironically, Hartley would get the controversial nod over Best, when it came time for selections to the 2013 British and Irish Lions squad. That is a decision that Best would, no doubt, harbour bruised feelings over, until the 2013 Aviva Premiership Final between Northampton and Leicester Tigers, only a few days ago.
Dylan Hartley: Red Card Over Red Shirt
Never before had a player been issued a straight red card in an Aviva Premiership Grand Final; not until Dylan Hartley—Captain of the Northampton Saints and soon to be Lions hooker—was sent off the pitch seconds before the close of the first half, at this year's event.
The entirely avoidable catastrophe for Northampton came about as a direct result of the ill-discipline and poor leadership of their captain, who was personally warned by referee Wayne Barnes that his increasingly harsh language towards the match officials would no longer be tolerated.
Barnes' lecture to Hartley can be heard down to its last syllable in the match video. Only moments later, a successful Leicester penalty would lead to a disastrous Northampton restart.
Northampton fly-half Stephen Myler asked referee Barnes, prior to his restart kick, if he could kick the ball out of bounds to end the half. As can be heard on the video, Barnes replies that he can't, as the restart cannot be kicked out on-the-full.
Myler's momentary brain freeze sees the ball kicked directly into touch, leaving Wayne Barnes no choice but to award Leicester a scrum deep in the Northampton end.
At this point, the Northampton squad is momentarily and obviously in shock at their own poor choices, and their situation soon goes from bad to worse.
A furious Dylan Hartley steps into the Northampton front-row for the scrum, only to see his team blown backwards and surrender yet another penalty.
Seconds later, Barnes shows Hartley a straight red-card, with the explanation that he had called the referee a "F***ing cheat."
Hartley's removal condemned his team to play the remainder of the match shorthanded and without their captain. A more selfish and foolish display can hardly be imagined.
The next day, a rapidly convened disciplinary board handed Hartley an 11-week ban for abuse of a match official; this time there was no effort even to hint at a history of reformed behaviour.
The 11-week ban will cause Hartley to miss the whole of the 2013 Lions tour to Australia, a tour in which he was set to play an important role.
That role will now be taken by Ulster and Ireland hooker Rory Best who, only months ago, was himself the victim of more Dylan Hartley foul play.
So, in addition to all his other disgraces, Dylan Hartley can well and truly be said to have made mockery of the expression: to be the best, you have to beat the Best.
Dylan Hartley: Fade To Black
With the inexplicable events of the last few days still ringing in our ears, writing an ending for this story is a difficult task.
Will Hartley recover and go on to become the leader for both Northampton and England that some seem to think he is capable of being?
Will Rory Best go on to prove the Lions' selectors were wrong this summer?
Will 2014 bring us still more episodes of Dylan Hartley madness?
Good questions, all. However, only time and you, our loyal Bleacher Report rugby audience, can answer them.
Bleacher Report is your home for great debate, as well as all of the sports news you can handle.
For now, I'm afraid the best we can do is leave you with this video of Dylan Hartley elbowing All Black legend Richie McCaw in the back of the head.
Good night everybody!
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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