England captain Dylan Hartley chats exclusively to Sky Sports Rugby about recovery from his latest serious concussion, England’s South Africa tour and perspective in life.
“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing,” Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“You’re a long time retired” – it’s a quote which has been used and reused by various veterans across sport when on the verge of retirement but seeking more years in the game.
For Dylan Hartley, retirement is a term he has read about constantly in connection with his name over the past two months.
Yet at just 32-years-old, under normal circumstances, his name should not be one linked with the exit door or the hanging up of boots.
On June 18 2016, he became the most capped England hooker of all time when he ran out to face Australia in Melbourne. On February 24 2018, he became the second most capped England international of all time at Murrayfield. A list which includes players as far back as the 1870’s.
Indeed, having picked up 93 Test caps, he is closing in on England’s most capped player ever, Jason Leonard – the holder of 114 caps. But, despite such striking accomplishments, the New Zealand-born forward is one of the most unheralded players across the country.
A combination of a fairly poor – and much publicised – disciplinary record on the pitch, a frosty relationship with British press and drops in the general standard of his performance on occasion has seen negative coverage of his career trump positive.
Hartley hasn’t played a game of rugby since mid-March when Ireland lifted the Grand Slam at Twickenham. The cause is concussion. Perhaps rugby’s most enigmatic and worrisome injury.
During the 2015/16 season, Hartley suffered two concussions, the second a sickening head knock which occurred in Paris during England’s own Grand Slam decider, leaving Hartley unconscious and out for all but 17 minutes of the rest of that season.
Against Ireland on St Patrick’s Day, Hartley left the field with a head injury, but the blow did not become symptomatic until resuming training with club Northampton Saints at a later date. While less spectacular than his injury two years previous at the Stade de France, its emergence, and its manner, was perhaps more troubling.
In the shadow of Twickenham on a muggy May afternoon, a more vulnerable side to Hartley is apparent. He’s conscious of mud that has flown up and onto his navy blue trousers making his way to the stadium. He’s due as a pundit on Sky Sports for the Barbarians clash – his first ever experience of such a position. He’s perhaps a tad nervous.
He’s affable, open and anything like the grizzly competitor on a rugby pitch who has overstepped the mark too many times.
It’s been a concerning few months for him personally, but he’s not ready to walk away yet.
“I’m good and I’m feeling a lot better,” he says. “I’ve taken some good advice from the best people going – my mum probably being at the top of the list.
“But I’m very fortunate to have some good people around me, giving me advice and ultimately, I’ve got to listen to myself, and how I am feeling as well.
“As soon as the decision was made for me not to be involved for the tail end of the season, it took a lot of pressure off.
“Rest has been the best thing for me. The mental pressure has been taken away by not trying to get back early, not trying to make it back for a tour, for end of season games.
“The best advice I got was to stay active, which I have done, but work within a framework. I’ve still got limits that I know I can go to and I’m actually looking forward to pushing the boundaries a little bit and getting the blood pumping.
“Being here at Twickenham today actually makes you think: ‘I’m not ready to finish playing yet’, the feeling of being here and of knowing what the guys are about to go and do still excites me.”
The last time Hartley suffered a serious head injury he spoke of some of the side effects he suffered, lacking a “get-up and go”. Struggling to find the energy to get on a bike or off the couch.
Upon his recovery he gave an interview stating, ‘If I got another one now I’d be worried. I would probably start looking at other careers, or stuff like that, or maybe a long lay-off.’ It’s something he describes as a “throwaway comment” now, but have symptoms been similar this time around?
“No it was different stuff. For example, I struggled getting my heart rate up.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail because it’s quite personal, but it just wasn’t right. Things weren’t right.
“Where I’m at now is considerably better and I’m on the road to recovery.
“I’ve been doing a little bit of commercial work on the side, dipping my toe in and keeping myself busy. I’ve not been able to train or play.
“It’s been good to see the other side of it, but what happens when you’re on that other side is you appreciate your time on the field.
“With any injury, it makes you evaluate your career. But I’ve got good advice around me and knowing how I feel myself, I’m confident I’ll be back playing. And I can’t wait.”
This June, England travel to South Africa for a three-Test series but it’s a tour Hartley won’t be a part of as he continues to follow return-to-play protocols.
The past two times England have travelled on tours to the southern hemisphere – Australia in 2016 and Argentina in 2017 – Hartley has led the side as captain. And while understandably disappointed, he’s cognisant it’s the best course of action.
“I want to be involved with the team and that’s the biggest disappointment: not being able to tour with the guys.
“The last time we played was here [Twickenham] against the Irish and it didn’t go well for us. And you want to be part of the resurgence and what will be a successful tour for the team.
“Selfishly, I could have lied to myself and everyone else and said: ‘I’ll tour’, and I could have got on with it but I had to make a hard decision not to.
“It’s obviously disappointing but I’ve got every confidence the team will progress well without me.
“Looking at who’s touring, there’s a good core of experience there but it’s not the same England team. Owen [Farrell] will captain it, and he’ll put his own stamp on that.
“Looking at some of the bolters and the young guys that have been taken, it’s a great chance for them and for Eddie [Jones] to see them in that environment. If they can add to England Rugby going forward, it’s only a good thing.
“It just proves that competition is so bloody hot here, the depth is good, and we’re not in that bad a place.”
Away from rugby, Hartley is getting married in July to fiance Joanne. “Things are ramping up,” he says laughing. And present at the wedding will be the couple’s young daughter Thea.
In August, she will be turning three and Hartley says her presence has been life-changing.
“It’s good fun. She separates rugby and home life, whereas before for me, it was just rugby, rugby, rugby.
“We only see the best of her. She’s a toddler and it has its fun and games but ultimately it’s pretty bloody cool.
“She’s the best thing right now.”
Having returned from a family holiday to Greece alongside Joanne and Thea last week, Hartley talks of upcoming plans to visit Chris Ashton at his house in Toulon – the Baa-Baas full-back who would go on to scythe through for three tries on Sunday.
But when the rugby is on in June, what type of fan is Hartley when he’s off the pitch?
“Oh not good. If I watch Northampton or watch England, I think my heart rate rises higher than when I exercise. It’s not a good thing for me.
“I enjoyed watching the Premiership final with so many teammates involved, and watching on as a complete neutral. I love watching the game, but when there’s something on the line for your team or something you’re connected to, my house isn’t the best place to be.
“My missus and little one, through their choice, go to a different room because there’s shouting, there’s hitting the sofa, there’s pillows thrown. I get involved.”
With any luck, he should be back involved on the pitch in no time. He may have his detractors, but nobody of any measure wishes to see Hartley retire prematurely.