Aviva Premiership
Why Dylan Hartley has been hard done by
John Taylor
December 23, 2014
Referee JP Doyle sends off Dylan Hartley © Getty Images

Somehow, I never imagined myself leaping to the defence of Dylan Hartley but the over-reaction to his minor act of retaliation on Saturday needs some perspective - hopefully, when the disciplinary panel convenes on Tuesday evening it have a little more understanding of what can happen almost accidentally in the heat of battle than Sean Davey, the TMO who effectively insisted on him being shown red.

If he were to be banned it would be a complete miscarriage of justice and yet another instance of English rugby shooting itself in the foot for the sake of political correctness. The ramifications go all the way through to the World Cup - a long lay-off (likely because of his previous track record not because the offence was on the serious end of any scale of misdemeanour) could well mean he would miss at least part of the Six Nations and then Stuart Lancaster is faced with a totally unnecessary problem. Does he have a duty to be seen to support the official line?

I have always been a very vocal critic of dirty play - the game is dangerous enough without it as I learned to my cost as a player - but this was the sort of argy-bargy that has always gone on between opposing forwards. There was no intent to injure - let alone maim - it was just an adrenalin fuelled bit of 'Gerr-off and leave me alone' after Matt Smith had followed through way beyond clearing Hartley out of the ruck.

We shall have to hope there is a little Christmas spirit in evidence - anything more than a couple of weeks would be draconian

It was not even a punch. In my book Smith comes out of the incident with no credit either - that was pure Hollywood, the sort of dive we expect from spoiled footballers not rugby players. I am not sure Hartley could even see Smith because James Wilson, the Northampton fullback, was in between trying to separate them, he just lashed out as daft hookers are wont to do when they feel they are being held illegally.

Let's face it - you have to be a bit mad to play hooker. Why do you think Brian Moore revelled in his nickname, Pit-bull? Because he was an aggressive piece of work on the rugby field.

Leicester's director of rugby, Richard Cockerill - more than a touch gratuitous I thought when he remarked, 'If you strike someone in the face you are liable to get yourself in trouble' - was no angel either.

It is yet another example of what I was banging on about in my last column - curbing the power of the TMO. Sometimes judging something in the isolation of your little black box does not give you the full picture even with the help of endless replays and slomos. I happen to know Davey reasonably well and he is a likeable, conscientious, reasonable man so one can only assume that he was adhering to a script that sets-out definite sanctions for certain actions without any leeway.

Referee Wayne Barnes shows Dylan Hartley a red card, Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints, Aviva Premiership Final, Twickenham, May 25, 2013
Wayne Barnes shows Dylan Hartley a red card © PA Photos

The referee, JP Doyle watched the incident carefully a couple of times and was very clear in telling Davey he felt it was definitely illegal and merited a yellow card but nothing more. Davey came back with, 'I believe that was an elbow to the face.' Doyle reacted immediately - it was as if he had no option. He looked distinctly unhappy but changed his decision to a red card.

Of course Hartley should have known better and it says something that he should risk what is belatedly becoming a stellar international career because he cannot resist the urge to retaliate but this was very different to some of the previous incidents on his charge sheet. There was certainly no excuse for gouging, punching or abusing Wayne Barnes in the Aviva Premiership Final last year - an offence that caused him to miss the Lions Tour to Australia. That is a bad catalogue of 'previous' but recently he has shown signs of much more maturity and the very fact that Northampton have persevered with him as their captain says an awful lot.

In an ideal world the disciplinary panel would overturn the sending-off and rule that it was only a yellow card offence but that seems highly unlikely given the very deliberate message from Davey to Doyle so we shall have to hope there is a little Christmas spirit in evidence - anything more than a couple of weeks would be draconian.

Of course Hartley is yet again in the last chance saloon. Lancaster should be angry and disappointed that a player he has backed so steadfastly is still not totally reliable. The thought that he could lose his cool in the heat of battle in the World Cup and cost England any chance of winning has to cross his mind, indeed he may well have already decided it is a risk too far but that should be his decision and not one precipitated by some over zealous officiating particularly when the real referee has been over-ruled by the TMO.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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