Loose Pass

Date published: December 13 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with indiscipline, the disciplinary, and a look at the Lions…

Why, why, why?

Oh Dylan Hartley, what have you done? A Lions tour on the horizon, a captaincy of an unbeaten national team through a calendar year, a world-renowned coach staunchly on your side… and then out of nothing, a forearm smash to the back of an opponent’s head, a red card, and a good 18 months of reformative work undone.

Not since Alan Quinlan felt it necessary to rub his fingers around Leo Cullen’s eye three weeks out from the flights to Johannesburg can there have been such a bizarre and sudden mental implosion.

Eddie Jones’ hand apparently flew to his face in dismay as Hartley’s crime was dealt with. Warren Gatland is less prone to such emotional outbursts but it’s difficult not to imagine the brow darkening, lips pursing and teeth clenching in frustration – and Hartley must surely be cognisant of the fact that this is the coach he let down ahead of the last Lions tour by getting sent off in the final.

Not one soul has come forward to Hartley’s side in defence. It was not a dirty game. Sean O’Brien had not done Hartley any wrong. The only person who will ever know why Dylan Hartley felt compelled to do this is Dylan Hartley. If there’s any bright side, it might eventually sell him a few more autobiography copies one day.

Hartley has been banned for an accumulated 54 weeks throughout his career, a figure that is likely now to climb into the mid 60s at the very least. It’s nigh on impossible to imagine him leading England out against France in February’s Six Nations opener, while Jamie George now has a wonderful chance to stake a well-deserved claim to that number two jersey. Were George to replicate club form, it would make it very hard for Jones not to have a good hard think about that captaincy. And from there, the Lions prospects dwindle.

But there is one aspect to all this that has been less remarked upon: Hartley seems inclined only to offend in a Northampton jersey.

Moreover, as Lawrence Dallaglio quite succinctly put it: “Dylan has kind of checked out of playing for Northampton this season. He played for them once, at the start at the season. He’s been brilliant for England… but he’s just checked out of playing for his club and I don’t think you can do that.”

Is there something to this? Northampton are having a stinker of a season by their standards, with even captain Tom Wood pointing out that: “I don’t want to talk too much about Dylan himself but as a club the discipline is becoming an issue. 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.”

Then there’s the fiasco with George North’s concussion. And big Lol is right, Dylan Hartley’s starts at Northampton have been far fewer and further between than any international coach would have liked. As have the wins. Perhaps Hartley is deeply frustrated with a few things at Franklin’s Gardens. It could at least shed some light on why he would do something so utterly stupid on the back of what has been such a pleasing spell of character reformation.

But then again, now we know. Hartley’s been on best behaviour while leading a team that is beating everyone. Would he manage to maintain the same when the chips were down? the answer to that question will ultimately determine his Lions prospects, ahead of the hardest tour of them all.

Farewell

It was sad to say that there were not enough comments at the bottom of Craig Joubert’s retirement story this week of a complementary nature.

Scotland evidently still seethes, while there’s many a Rugby Championship fan who believes his side was once hard done by. I know he’s stiffed my lot on occasion.

But not once, when Joubert was in charge of a game, did I find myself expecting controversy, bad calls, ugly game flow, poor communication or consistent judgment errors.

On his watch, more than many others, I have found myself swearing and cursing at the screen for a few seconds before slumping back in embarrassment as the replays proved him right.

Around 40 percent of the headlines afforded to his retirement from Test refereeing this week implemented that highly imaginative of adjectives ‘controversial’. And yet to speak with him, to watch him going about his business with inimitable quiet understated efficiency, you could never really actually apply that word and make it stick.

His presence on the field was always more calming than controversial, his communication impeccable, and his ability to manage relationships with players generally top class. Mistakes were controversial. But as a character, it’s the last word you should use.

Rugby should miss him. If he made a few mistakes in his career, there won’t be a player or official who has been around as long as Joubert was who hasn’t made at least as many.

If he can pass on his ability to manage games that well in his new role as a referee mentor, the game will have been done a tremendous service.

How about this lot then?

A Lions XV for the first Test? We’re half a year out, so it seems about the right time…

15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 George North, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jonny Gray, 3 Tadgh Furlong 2 Rory Best, 1 Mako Vunipola

Do your worst below…

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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