t was always likely that Dylan Hartley’s soon-to-be published autobiography would cause a ripple or two. Few rugby players have managed to divide opinion so reliably or reinvent themselves so successfully; dull anonymity has rarely been the former England captain’s speciality. The initial passages to emerge from his book, The Hurt, are both forthright and striking.
Perhaps most significant of all, however, is the harsh light Hartley shines on rugby itself. Not since Jonny Wilkinson’s slightly disturbing autobiography has a high-profile England player made his day job sound more wince-inducing. “My generation of players have been crash dummies for a sport in transition from semi-professionalism,” he writes, suggesting the game’s money men treat those who take the field like “human widgets” and revealing that he discouraged his family from visiting the team hotel on days off “because it would have felt like a prison visit”.
There are mountaineering books on conquering Everest that paint a softer picture than Hartley’s description of the England camp under the relentless Eddie Jones. Nothing truly worth achieving is ever easy, clearly, but the Rugby Football Union cannot be entirely sanguine when a hard-nosed senior player says there were times “when playing for England felt a bit like taking part in one of those brutal dance marathons in the Great Depression of the 1920s, where penniless couples kept going until they collapsed”.
Touching the void, and all that. As with his lineout throwing in the latter half of his career, the former Northampton and England hooker has taken aim at some tricky targets and hit a good number of them. It will be interesting to see if Jones’s employer is brave enough to demand any adjustments for the sake of those who remain. Even rugby’s hardest nuts have soft centres, mentally if not physically.
Hartley, to be absolutely clear, rates Jones as the best coach he played under. But can a sport whose smashed-up participants struggle to wipe their own backsides the day after games and gobble painkillers like Smarties – Hartley’s words – be considered entirely healthy? Every leading sportsperson requires crazy levels of commitment these days; the term player welfare increasingly feels like an oxymoron for all those at rugby’s coal face.
On the face of it, Hartley is one of the lucky ones: he led England for a lengthy period, reaped the financial benefits that came with it and has a young family he adores. There are umpteen players out there who would settle for a fraction of that return. But just because Hartley was personally able to absorb such fearsome levels of punishment, it should not obscure the wider price today’s top players risk having to pay. If any line in Hartley’s book chills the blood it is the 34-year-old’s admission that, following multiple concussions, he gets dizzy easily and sometimes gets his words muddled.
No wonder his wife, Jo, says she is relieved he has now retired. Where once there would have been little doubt as to whether boxing or rugby union was the more punishing pro sport, now it feels a much-closer-run thing. The difference is that top boxers are paid millions; rugby players are seeing their wages drop at a time when their trade has never felt more consistently brutal.
It is another reason why Hartley’s views on how players might be better protected in future should carry hefty weight. He advocates central contracts, a six-month season and fewer league games, with bone-on-bone contact training restricted to pre-season alone. This, remember, is someone who played 96 Tests in the front row and served 60 weeks in suspensions. Even the toughest, most grizzled of hombres are saying enough is enough.
There is an argument that, for maximum effect, Hartley should have expressed a few more of these pithy opinions while he was still wearing the England captain’s armband. Not easy, clearly, and potentially career-shortening, but The Hurt underlines what many of us who sit through endlessly-beige press conferences with muzzled, overly media-managed players have been saying for years. If they told it like it is more often, players might find a few more influential people will have no choice but to listen.
Congratulations to Dylan, either way, for speaking out now. It would not surprise me if a fair amount of the love he occasionally forfeited during his career comes flooding back when people realise he is smarter and funnier in real life than they had appreciated. Yes, Hartley’s tale is a cautionary one in some respects but his testimony might just prove to be the catalyst that frees others up to make a positive difference. Here’s hoping it allows the next generation of international forwards to wipe their own backsides unaided in future.
Competition at No 10
It is a while since England were so spoilt for choice at fly-half. It is way too soon, clearly, to pension off Owen Farrell or George Ford – aged 28 and 27 respectively – but Exeter’s Joe Simmonds, Harlequins’ Marcus Smith and Wasps’ Jacob Umaga are all knocking enthusiastically on Eddie Jones’s door. The trio all have something about them and would interest any of the home nations; if you were placing a bet on which of them will go on to win the most Test caps you might be tempted to say Smith, a long-time Jones favourite, but it is no coincidence that Simmonds and Umaga are playing for teams in the Premiership top four. All three are good enough to be around for a while.
One to watch …
The suspended Guinness Pro 14 season is due to restart this weekend, albeit minus the cross-border element of the league, with the semi-finals and final scheduled to follow next month. The provincial ‘derbies’ will be useful for national coaches as they seek to finalise their autumn plans but will also be monitored closely by European Professional Club Rugby officials, still desperate for their own tournament to resume in mid-September. Amid all the excitement surrounding the return of live rugby in Britain and Ireland, a potential sudden spike in Covid-19 infections in the next fortnight would be an absolute nightmare for the authorities.