As Eddie Jones launched into his controversial assessment of Johnny Sexton’s health, Dylan Hartley sat quietly next to him.
The England captain attempted to adopt a look of complete neutrality, aware this was one fight he should steer well clear of.
So far during his brief time as skipper, Hartley has avoided any semblance of a fight rather well.
On the pitch he has been industrious; off it he has come across well, while ensuring Jones has remained the centre of attention.
Today, though, we will get a huge clue as to whether Hartley is the real deal or not. With the two hookers – Hartley and Rory Best – captaining the two sides, their confrontation will go a long way to deciding the outcome of a fascinating contest.
As Hartley maintained his neutral look, Jones emphasised that he expects his man to emerge on top.
“It’s the one part of the game where you are physically head to head,” said the England coach of the two hookers. “At hooker every scrum you’re facing your opposition guy. I know Dylan’s going to be looking forward to it.”
They key, though, is whether Hartley can keep his head while doing so. The issues over his temperament are well documented. He has served bans totalling over a year, and has missed out on a World Cup and a Lions tour due to suspension.
Off the field, though, Hartley is a genuine, thoughtful man, with the arrival of baby daughter Thea last year changing his outlook on life.
It is still a surprise to hear that Hartley was inspired to take up the sport by Jonah Lomu, however.
Due to Hartley’s tete-a-tete with Jamie George and subsequent suspension, an interview I conducted with him that was intended for a Rugby World Cup programme has never seen the light of day. But it gives a glimpse into the transformation in a farm boy from Rotarura, New Zealand, who now finds himself England captain.
“During the 1995 World Cup my dad brought me home a rugby ball,” recalled Hartley. “My two brothers got a football and a basketball, but my rugby ball went everywhere with me.
“I kicked it until it went smooth. Once the seam had burst I ripped the orange balloon out and played with that. For lineouts I started with a telephone pole I used to try and hit. But every time I missed I had to go and get the ball as it rolled 20 metres down the road.
“When I got a bit better and a little smarter I figured a basketball hoop was better as it had a back-board, and behind that a fence. So any aspiring hooker: just find a mark, a hoop, a poll, a brick on a wall. It sounds like I didn’t have any friends!
“Going to school then I remember Jonah Lomu being plastered everywhere, all over the news. He was young, and when you talk about inspiring a generation, he did that.” Now Hartley, who moved to England in 2002, hopes to do the same. His inspiration was undoubtedly missed at the World Cup - particularly at the set-piece – and his confrontational style is lauded by Jones, as is the role he has played in rebuilding the team after that difficult tournament.
“He’s brought the team together,” said Jones, who admitted when he first appointed Hartley that all he could do was ‘hope’ there wouldn’t be a repeat of his disciplinary indiscretions.
“It was well documented the team probably wasn’t very close after the World Cup. He’s done a fantastic job getting everyone together trying to get everyone to understand how we want to behave, how we want to play, how we want to train and what are the key values of the team.”
Ask Hartley how he has done that and his answer is simple: he has created ‘an atmosphere of sacrifice’.
An example of that is that the players have done away with their midweek day off, reasoning that spending two hours each way in a car was not the best use of their time.
So instead, players such as Hartley and Joe Marler – both parents of toddlers – make do with Facetime and phone contact while they focus on England.
Jones still keeps Hartley on his toes - “One day he’ll come in and ask me how my kids are then 10 seconds later he’ll tell me I trained shit,” he laughs – but the captain is growing into the role.
This, though, is where the real business begins. Scotland and Italy were merely warm-ups for Ireland and Wales, and Hartley knows he will be targeted.
“Now we have got those two games out of the way,this is a proper game.” A proper game, and a proper test for Hartley. So far he has judged it perfectly, but Ireland present a very different challenge to those he has overcome so far. It won’t be quiet at Twickenham, and don’t expect Hartley to be either.
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