Gatland turning up the heat on Hartley
January 25, 2011
Dylan Hartley and Cardiff Blues hooker Gareth Williams hold a brief discussion on their way to the sin bin at Franklin's Gardens © Getty Images
It could be coincidence, but the featured player on the front page of the RFU website on Tuesday was Dylan Hartley, complete with a photo of the Northampton hooker and captain wearing a smile that would not be out of place in a toothpaste commercial.
The biography it links to runs through eight paragraphs before making a brief mention of the six-month ban Hartley received in 2007. You can bet the ban preys more strongly on the mind of Warren Gatland, as shown by the Wales coach's comments about Hartley as the war of words before England go to Cardiff burst into life.
Those who dismiss Gatland as an inveterate wind-up merchant should not make the mistake to think that there is no truth in what he says. Of course there is premeditation to it, in the sense that he knows full well how his words will be taken.
Rather than hide his feelings or opinions when he is asked a question, he gives them in his answers. Which is refreshing, even if you may judge him to be infra-dig in terms of fair play, fighting a fair fight and that kind of thing. Gatland's words certainly come loaded with the risk that if they turn out to be misjudged or plain wrong, he and his players will look foolish. He doesn't mind taking that risk.
It would be nice to think that opposing players and coaches go round in a bubble of bonhomie, happy to have a pint after a match and never bear a grudge or remember a wrong. Gatland's comments suggest otherwise.
When he said before 2009's Wales v Ireland match that the Welsh players like the Irish least among their Six Nations opponents there was mystification in the press, and I was as puzzled as the next man. But I have since learned from a former member of the Wales staff that there was truth in it. Suffice to say, the source had it first-hand from someone who had a foot in both camps via the Magners League and his international representation.
Gatland has 'history' with Hartley. The latter gave evidence in the recent disciplinary case that saw Richie Rees, the Cardiff Blues scrum-half, banned for 12 weeks and ruled out of the Six Nations Championship. Hartley testified by telephone (confirming a written statement) that he lost a contact lens and had some marks around his eye after Rees's hand made contact with it during the Blues' home Heineken Cup match against Northampton. In any such case, if the victim plays the incident down, it may help the accused.
Hartley, it appears, did not do that. And, with heavy irony, when it came to passing sentence on Rees the disciplinary panel referred (as other appeals have been doing in recent years) to what is seen as a test case for gouging or 'contact with the eye area', none other than Hartley's own 26-week ban in 2007. The players on the receiving end on that occasion were from Wasps, a club with whom Gatland has close ties.
The coach also referred this week to the other Blues v Northampton match this season, at Franklin's Gardens. When Gareth Williams and Hartley were sent to the sin bin near the end, the Welshman walked along the touchline with the Kiwi-turned-Englishman right behind him, each chatting away to the other.
When they got to the mouth of the tunnel, Williams, exasperated, made a movement with his hand. Hartley moved away, putting distance between them. Gatland's version was as follows: "He [Hartley] was not prepared to step outside to the back of the stand with Gareth Williams when invited to do so, so we will see how he fronts up against us."
So that's the background but what is the message? Gatland and Wales have not had a big win since the defeat of England in Cardiff in 2009. They need a repeat to get the both the Six Nations and their World Cup year off to a good start. Wales have both their favourite props injured so - much to Gatland's frustration - the notion of a few weeks ago that they could attack England in the scrum has been tempered, if not gone entirely out of the window.
Instead, because England are lacking Courtney Lawes and, in particular, Tom Croft, the focus is being shifted by Wales onto the lineout. That and, possibly, their discipline (remember England's two yellow cards in Cardiff in '09?). Gatland is portraying Hartley as a weak link on both counts. It would seem likely that Tom Palmer will run the England lineout with either Simon Shaw or Louis Deacon alongside him. With Croft out, the third jumper - if there is one - could be another Northampton man, Tom Wood. If, that is, Martin Johnson decided to give Wood a Test debut at the Millennium Stadium which would be, as they say, a "big call". All rolled together, it does not make as pretty a picture for Hartley is it might have been.
Johnson, naturally, would have no truck with the idea that Gatland is painting him into a corner. But if Johnson reverts to his plan in the first of last autumn's internationals, when he picked Steve Thompson ahead of Hartley (who started the next three), he would be accused of following Gatland's lead. Even if it might be the best selection, for an English pack whose best bet is to bully the Welsh. You may frown or giggle at Gatland's antics, but you cannot deny Hartley's role in the next couple of weeks has just become that bit more fascinating.
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