One crude swinging arm is in danger of costing Dylan Hartley his immediate future as the England captain and any chance he had of leading the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand next summer.
Hartley could hardly have chosen a worse evening to revert from Saint to sinner, his deserved 58th-minute red card which was witnessed by Eddie Jones and his predecessor Stuart Lancaster, now a member of Leinster’s management,
The hooker, widely hailed as a key influence in England’s unbeaten calendar year, had been on the field for six minutes when he was dismissed by the French referee Jérôme Garcès, having stiff-armed the Ireland back-row Sean O’Brien from behind. With a bonus-point defeat leaving Northampton rooted to the foot of their European pool, Hartley’s latest indiscretion not only left his club in the lurch but instantly shredded his growing reputation as a reformed character.
Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, made scant attempt to defend the indefensible, having seen his side concede five tries. “It’s a strike to the head, we’ve seen enough of them over the last few weeks,” he said. “I think it was a red card. He’s been playing really well and leading England by example so it was disappointing that on returning from England after doing such a good job that that happens. I’m also disappointed for the team. When you play a team like Leinster, you want all your best players playing and you need 15 players on the field.”
Mallinder expects Hartley to receive a hefty ban, with the top-end sanction for striking being eight weeks. With England kicking off the Six Nations against France in eight weeks’ time a lengthy suspension would leave Hartley extremely short of rugby even if a stern-faced Jones is merciful and opts not to relieve him of the armband.
It is all too reminiscent of Hartley’s dark days, with his sending off in the 2013 Premiership final having cost him a place on that year’s Lions tour. A subsequent citing and ban for butting Saracens’ Jamie George also scuppered his 2015 World Cup prospects but that seemed ancient history as he helped guide England to 13 Test wins this year, including a grand slam. One moment of madness has propelled him back into the doghouse once more.
The trigger for this latest career implosion may or may not have been Northampton’s decision to start Hartley on the bench. Tom Wood, the Saints’ captain, was among those who felt it might have been a factor. “I can only assume he is trying to make an impact and be positive,” Wood said. “I can’t speak for him but my impression is that he’s on the bench, he’s eager, it’s a big European night and he wants to make an impact. Contact to the head is such a big directive at the minute there was only ever going to be one decision. I don’t want to talk too much about Dylan himself but as a club the discipline is becoming an issue.”
Wood was also scathing about his side’s performance, with Leinster almost embarrassingly dominant in the first quarter. “We’re lacking some belief, some togetherness and some identity. We don’t feel like we’re together at the minute. We spoke all week about having a big start and coming out of the blocks but we were just flat. We stood and watched them for 20 minutes.”
It rounded off a truly gruesome week for Northampton, still under fire for their handling of George North’s latest head knock against Leicester last week. The furore refuses to go away, with Mallinder now conceding the Wales wing, who has been told to rest for two weeks, may have been concussed after all: “At the time of the incident our medics, from the views that they could see and speaking to George, believed George was not concussed. On reviewing the other views they recognised that he was, or probably was, and therefore would have probably done things differently.”
The findings of the specially convened three-man panel will be fascinating and there could soon be calls for a wide-ranging inquest into Northampton’s underwhelming season. The game had barely started when a slick sequence of Leinster phases ended with Garry Ringrose racing in unopposed under the posts and, despite the premature loss of Joey Carbery, the luminous-shirted visitors made the black-clad Saints look horribly sluggish.
With Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip also lending a formidable edge up front and Rob Kearney imperious at the back, Northampton were thankful to be only 10-3 down at half-time and could hardly believe it when a nice long ball from J J Hanrahan released Ahsee Tuala to score wide on the right.
They reckoned without further Leinster tries from O’Brien, Rory O’Loughlin, Jamison Gibson-Park and Isa Nacewa, the last three following Hartley’s dismissal. In addition to letting down club and country, the hooker was also guilty of overshadowing Lancaster’s triumphant return to English rugby soil.
Northampton Foden; K Pisi, Burrell, Hanrahan (G Pisi, 65), Elliott (Tuala, 25; Kessell 65); Myler, Groom; A Waller (E Waller, 65), Haywood (Hartley, 52), Hill (Denman, 62), Paterson (Harrison, 57), Lawes, Gibson, Wood (capt; Haywood, 59), Picamoles (Ratuniyarawa, 57).
Try Tuala Con Myler Pen Myler.
Sent-off Hartley, 58 Sin-bin G Pisi, 78.
Leinster Kearney (O’Loughlin, 42); Byrne, Ringrose, Henshaw, Nacewa (capt); Carbery (Byrne, 15), L McGrath (Gibson-Park, 70); J McGrath (Healy, 58), Cronin (J Tracy, 58), Furlong, Toner, Triggs (Ruddock, 52), O’Brien, Van der Flier, Heaslip.
Tries Ringrose, O’Brien, O’Loughlin, Gibson-Park, Nacewa. Cons Nacewa 3 Pens Nacewa 2.
Referee J Garcès (Fr).
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