Red card in the hand against blue skyAfter Eddie Jones was named Head Coach of the England rugby team a little over a year ago one of his first controversial decisions (see here for some others) was to name Dylan Hartley as captain in place of Chris Robshaw.

Several pundits questioned the logic of replacing Robshaw with New Zealand born Hartley who, it is fair to say, is no stranger of controversy on the field. Indeed over the course of ten years professional rugby to date he has been suspended for over a year (54 weeks) or around 10% of his career.

His ‘rap’ sheet is as follows:

April 2007 – his longest ban to date, 26 weeks as a result of making ‘illegal contact’ with the eyes of Wasps players James Haskell (his now England teammate) and Jonny O’Connor. Just 21 at the time, and making a name for himself for the England Saxons, Hartley’s ban was reduced from 30 to 26 weeks as a result of previous good character albeit the ban ruled him out of contention for a place in the 2007 World Cup at which England were runners up.

March 2012 – an 8 week ban for biting the finger of Stephen Ferris whilst playing for England in the Six Nations at Twickenham – his only ban playing for England to date.

December 2012 – a 2 week ban for punching Rory best whilst playing for Northampton against Leinster in the European Cup.

May 2013 – an 11 week ban for abusing referee Wayne Barnes during the first half of the Premiership Final against Leicester at Twickenham. Having been twice warned previously, Barnes sent Hartley off for calling him a “cheat” in reaction to the award of a Leicester penalty. Northampton would go on to lose the match and Hartley ruled himself out of the successful British & Irish Lions tour to Australia later that summer.

December 2014 – a 3 week ban, this time for elbowing Matt Smith in a local derby against Leicester. Hartley would play for England during the 2015 Six Nations but only after receiving a ‘last warning’ from renowned disciplinarian Stuart Lancaster as to his future conduct.

May 2015 – 4 weeks for head-butting current England rival Jamie George during the Premiership semi-final. This ban again proved costly for Hartley as it ruled him out of the first game of the 2015 World Cup which in turn led Lancaster to make the decision to drop him from the squad all together, ironically to be replaced by George.

Despite the above Jones’s decision to replace the clean cut Robshaw with Hartley appears to have been an astute one with England finishing 2016 undefeated after a record equalling 14th victory in a row.

Hartley made no pledge to reform his game on being appointed captain, nor did it appear Jones wanted him to, preferring instead his captain to have an element of danger and unpredictability. Hartley has been a revelation (as has Robshaw) and has led by example with no discipline issues whilst playing in the white shirt of England.

Unfortunately the Hartley of old reappeared for Northampton Saints at the weekend with his sending off after only six minutes on the pitch by referee Jerome Garces for striking Leinster’s (what is it with Leicester and Leinster?) Sean O’Brien.

Hartley has been charged with an offence in contravention of World Rugby’s Law 10.4(a) which simply states:

“10.4 – Dangerous Play and Misconduct

(a) Punching or striking.

A player must not strike an opponent with the fist or arm, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s).”

If proven the offence has the following sanction entry points – Low End: 2 weeks; Mid-Range: 5 weeks; Top End: 8 to 52 weeks. The Disciplinary Committee will make its ruling tomorrow.

A ban of anything over 8 weeks, the top end of offences and which would appear likely, will see Hartley miss England’s Six Nations opener against France on 4 February 2017 and require Jones to find a new England captain.

Given Jones’s reluctance to pay much attention to anything written in the media or the voice of public opinion it is unlikely he will pressured to act in the same way as Lancaster and that the goodwill Hartley has in the bank as a result of England’s recent form will see him keep the job in the long term.

Whether Warren Gatland will take such a gamble in respect of his Lions touring party to New Zealand is yet to be seen.