There really is only ONE Dylan Hartley: World class Saints skipper vital to club and country
23:03 GMT, 18 October 2012
When Dylan Hartley leads Northampton against Castres in France, his status as an indispensable figure for club and country means that in the ground and across the Channel, breath will be held, fingers will be crossed.
Neither the Saints nor England can afford for any harm to come to the 26-year-old hooker. His value to both has risen markedly, to the point where injury or any disciplinary mishap does not bear thinking about. At this moment, Hartley is irreplaceable.
Northampton coach Jim Mallinder said: ‘He is outstanding for us on and off the field. I think he is world class. He gives us real physicality but he is also a hooker who can play. He can do everything.’
Indispensable: Hooker Dylan Hartley has become a key figure for club and country
Hartley’s storming start to the season was highlighted last week when the Northampton captain was named Aviva Premiership Player of the Month. Days earlier, he had been unavailable to play in his side’s league game at London Irish — due to a minor fracture of the eye-socket — and their unbeaten record promptly came to a resounding halt.
Match guide: Castres v Northampton
(Stade Ernest Wallon, 8pm)
Northampton have solved the issue of which of their leading fly-halves to pick by naming both of them. Stephen Myler, the preferred option at No 10 this season, shifts to full back and Ryan Lamb comes in at stand-off.
PREDICTION: Away win.
Back at the helm last week, Hartley led the cavalry charge to recovery and victory after the Saints had slumped to a 15-0 deficit at home to Glasgow. Now, he and his team-mates will hope to carry that momentum into the Heineken Cup Pool Four showdown.
This is an ideal opportunity for Hartley to fine-tune his big-match intensity and provide further evidence of his increased composure and imposing presence, with three weeks to go until England start their autumn campaign against Fiji.
His form has been good and there should be no shortage of self-belief, especially with the words of encouragement he has received.
At an address to the Oxford Union this week, England coach Stuart Lancaster is reported to have name-checked Hartley repeatedly in glowing terms.
Hands on: Hartley gets to grips with Exeter's Tom Johnson
The hooker is considered a bona fide candidate to lead his country next month, as the incumbent captain, having taken on the responsibility in the absence of an injured Chris Robshaw in Port Elizabeth in June, with England going on to claim a 14-14 draw against South Africa. While Robshaw remains the favourite to resume his duties as skipper, Hartley is breathing down his neck.
His value to England can be judged by his established position, as a relative veteran of 42 Test appearances. Following the retirement of Steve Thompson after last year’s World Cup and the decision by Lee Mears of Bath to step down from international rugby, Hartley is all alone as an English hooker with any pedigree at the top level.
The case for Hartley to take on the national captaincy has been championed by Mallinder, whose decision to install him as Saints skipper three years ago has emerged as a master-stroke.
The centre of attention: Hartley and England's front row square up to their Irish counterparts
He said: ‘It gave me pride to see him made England captain, because a few people questioned our decision when we made him captain of this club. Stuart Lancaster has a difficult decision to make. I can’t comment on the qualities of anyone else, but I know Dylan’s qualities. Hooker is a tough position but he leads from the front. Off the field he’s got the respect of all the players and he’s definitely a candidate.
‘He stands out in his attitude every day of the week. In training as well as in games, he leads us from the front. He never has a sloppy session, he’s the first there, the hardest there and leads by example.’
Mallinder has been seething about the Heineken Cup schedule which means his team go into tonight’s game on the back of a five-day turn-around, while their opponents are more rested.
Yet, recent indicators suggest Northampton can prevail. Last season, after losing 41-22 in Castres, they thrashed the same opposition 45-0 at home a week later. The previous season, they beat the French club home and away, albeit by narrow margins.