Hartley, Haskell and the death (or rebirth) of English rugby?

Rugby’s worst keep secret was revealed this week when new England coach Eddie Jones confirmed that Dylan Hartley  will captain the team for the annual 6 nations tournament which begins on6 February.

Even if you don’t know the first thing about rugby, this is news. Hartley is undoubtedly a player of great talent, but arguably even greater ill-discipline which has seen him suspended for long periods. But does this matter?  No, clearly not to another player who would be hard-to-resist in any national first 15, James Haskell.  Quoted in  the  ‘papers at the weekend, Haskell endorsed Hartley for the job I don’t care what he’s done in the past,  Haskell says – we need his  no-holds-barred commitment on the field.

Well hang on, I mean really let’s just hang on a moment. Stuff the ethics. Misconduct doesn’t matter so much. It’s what happens on the field, in competition that matters. And in the mix of what matters, winning trumps everything.

Sorry Eddie, and absolutely no disrespect intended to Messrs Hartley and Haskell…but I disagree. Profoundly. I want my team to win as much as anyone. But I want my leaders to be people my kids can look up to, that I can look up to.

I don’t doubt for one moment the commitment of my new national captain, but having  so much passion that you commit fouls that  get you suspended is  at best a questionable strategy.

Because that approach leads us inevitably to an “it doesn’t matter as long as we win” state of affairs. Win ugly or win clean, it doesn’t matter. But I beg to differ.

If winning ugly is synonymous with breaking the rules on an “as needs” basis, then I believe it is not winning at all. And here’s why: Players get injured by foul moves. People get hurt. And people get suspended (As would-be returning international Chris Ashton, presently is very much aware.) Teams are weakened. The sport loses out.

And like it or not – and this is where the lack of any rugby knowledge doesn’t matter – if you are the leader of national team playing a national sport, your conduct matters. Whether you like it or not, what you do counts – and is used as a reference point by others.

The 11 and 12 year olds I coach have fair play drilled into them. They complain vehemently when code violations by their opponents go unpunished by the referee. At this level, the values of the game are of utmost importance. So what does having a persistent rule breaker appointed as England captain say to them?

If you’ve got this far you may well be thinking I am naive at best, failure-prone at worst. And maybe that is true. Maybe the game has always been more Hartley than (for example) Wilkinson or Robshaw.  But if that is the case what does to say about the sport?

It leaves the door open to saying, do you know what, the rules don’t really matter. Conduct doesn’t really matter. It encourages elements that I think everyone connected with rugby knows are there but which actually don’t help any of us. On yes, the working class may bait and abuse each other at the football, but the rugby way is for the rest of us get tanked up and chuck beer all over ourselves and each other while the 30 guys on the pitch demonstrate the acceptable face of hooliganism.

But maybe I am unkind. Maybe Eddie Jones and the RFU have been inspired. Maybe this is just the fresh start that a to-be world cup winning England rugby captain needs.

But it’s a helluva gamble with more than just rugby at stake.

This piece was also published by The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/simon-sapper/dylan-hartley_b_9075296.html

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