Gat­land warns Hart­ley over in­dis­ci­pline

Winger is back for Sara­cens af­ter ban and it is a real shame he has de­cided to in­vest his fu­ture in France rather than try­ing to force his way back into Jones’ squad

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - By Gavin Mairs RUGBY NEWS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

War­ren Gat­land fired a warn­ing to con­tenders for his Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions squad, in­clud­ing Eng­land cap­tain Dy­lan Hart­ley, that their discipline will be closely mon­i­tored dur­ing the Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship as it will be crit­i­cal to his side’s hopes of beat­ing New Zealand this sum­mer.

Gat­land’s warn­ing comes in the af­ter­math of the six-week ban handed out to Hart­ley for strik­ing Le­in­ster flanker Sean O’Brien dur­ing Northamp­ton’s Cham­pi­ons’ Cup de­feat in Dublin. Gat­land left those hop­ing to press their claims for a place in his 35man squad, which will be an­nounced on April 19, in no doubt that ill-discipline would not be tol­er­ated.

“I like play­ers who play on the edge – par­tic­u­larly go­ing to New Zealand you have to bring the phys­i­cal­ity – but discipline is go­ing to be hugely im­por­tant,” Gat­land told The Sun­day Tele­graph. “We can’t af­ford to end up with play­ers get­ting yel­low cards and play­ers miss­ing matches be­cause of sus­pen­sions be­cause it will be so costly. That is the mes­sage to ev­ery­one.

“If you get yel­low cards in matches it can be tough to win those games and if it is a red card, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble. You don’t beat the All Blacks with 14.

“There is a huge amount at stake and a lot of in­ter­est­ing clashes in the Six Na­tions. A lot of play­ers re­alise it is im­por­tant for them to do well be­cause indi- vid­u­ally if they do well and the team do well there is a car­rot at the end of it.”

Hart­ley’s ban runs un­til Jan 23, leav- ing the 30-year-old just one club match, an An­glo-Welsh Cup game against Le­ices­ter, to prove his fit­ness be­fore Eng­land’s Six Na­tions opener against France at Twick­en­ham on Feb 4.

Asked whether Hart­ley could not af­ford an­other dis­ci­plinary is­sue ahead of the Lions tour, Gat­land added: “What Dy­lan will be dis­ap­pointed about is that he prob­a­bly felt that he had put some of the past be­hind him and I think ev­ery­one had thought his discipline record over the last 12 months had been good.

“The cap­taincy for Eng­land has been re­ally good for him. It has been an in­dis­cre­tion that was dis­ap­point­ing.”

While there has been plenty of talk this week about the rights and wrongs and length of Dy­lan Hart­ley’s ban for his swing­ing arm on Sean O’Brien, there has been pre­cious lit­tle about an­other high-pro­file Eng­land in­ter­na­tional who is about to re­turn from a lengthy ban of his own.

Chris Ash­ton will once again be avail­able to Sara­cens as of to­mor­row but the ca­reer of one of the most nat­u­rally tal­ented wingers in the coun­try looks very dif­fer­ent now to how it did when he was banned for 13 weeks in Septem­ber for bit­ing the arm of Northamp­ton prop Alex Waller.

Ash­ton’s de­ci­sion to hand in a trans­fer re­quest dur­ing his time out, and take up a three-year con­tract with Toulon as of the end of this sea­son, is a huge shame in many ways, de­priv­ing Eng­land of his ser­vices, prob­a­bly for good. At his best Ash­ton is a world­class fin­isher; and an Ed­die Jones type of player. Like Hart­ley, he has a bit of the devil about him. He is a charis­matic, in-your-face type player. A win­ner. He does some­times get lost chas­ing the ball in mid­field, not mak­ing it back to his wing in time to re­ceive it, but he has proved him­self at in­ter­na­tional level. Sadly for Eng­land, he has de­cided his fu­ture lies else­where. At 29, these should be his peak years, when the com­bi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence and phys­i­cal at­tributes merge to make him the best player he can be. But he can­not see a fu­ture for him­self un­der Jones. It is un­for­tu­nate. For some­one renowned for his tim­ing, Ash­ton’s two bans came at the worst pos­si­ble mo­ment for his Eng­land chances. First, the 10-week sus­pen­sion for eye-goug­ing right be­fore this year’s Six Na­tions just when it looked like he would have the chance to prove him­self un­der Ed­die. Then again right be­fore the au­tumn in­ter­na­tion­als with the bite on Waller. Both in­ci­dents en­tirely his fault.

In truth, I think he had al­ready made up his mind by the time of the sec­ond one. Re­fus­ing to go on the Sax­ons tour this sum­mer would not have pleased Ed­die, who would have wanted to see com­mit­ment to the cause.

In his ab­sence, Eng­land have en­joyed an un­beaten cal­en­dar year and Ed­die’s op­tions on the wing have grown steadily. As well as Jonny May – who was bril­liant all au­tumn – and Mar­land Yarde, there are still Jack Now­ell and An­thony Wat­son to re­turn. El­liot Daly can play there too.

Ash­ton knows that un­less there is a spate of in­juries he is un­likely to get a look-in. So you can un­der­stand his de­ci­sion. A three-year con­tract, pre­sum­ably highly lu­cra­tive, play­ing and liv­ing in the south of France for one of the great Euro­pean clubs, out­side some world-class play­ers.

Al­though they are su­per­stars, there is also a re­ally pro­fes­sional, hard­work­ing cul­ture down there, some­thing for which I think Jonny Wilkin­son de­serves a lot of credit.

Ash­ton has to knuckle down now and prove he has learnt his les­son. He owes it to Sara­cens and to Mark McCall, who have been good to him. And who knows, there may be one fi­nal twist in the tale. Ed­die is a prag­ma­tist. If he has a run of in­juries and Ash­ton is play­ing well for Sara­cens, why not? He will be a home­based player un­til he moves to France.

On the sub­ject of Hart­ley’s ban, I thought six weeks was just about right. Com­mon sense pre­vailed. It was not an act of thug­gery. Had it been eye-goug­ing, or punch­ing or bit­ing then it would have been more.

It was a rash swing of the arm born of frus­tra­tion, I think. He did not start the match, Northamp­ton were get­ting ham­mered, you could see it all build­ing up. But that does not ex­cuse it. He was cer­tainly in the wrong. But it was not an act of thug­gery.

I would like to see more com­mon sense ap­plied. I have said it be­fore, but the whole dis­ci­plinary process has got very into lawyers and QCs. When I was di­rec­tor of rugby at Wasps and used to at­tend dis­ci­plinary hear­ings, you would some­times tear your hair out as the fo­cus was more on whether some­one would sue than what ac­tu­ally went on out there on the pitch.

Some­times you just want to see com­mon rugby sense ap­plied. If it is an act of out­right thug­gery then I would al­ways sup­port the long­est ban pos­si­ble. The po­ten­tial for in­jury in rugby is huge. But there has to be an un­der­stand­ing of the game. That is why you want rugby men in there. I was al­ways greatly re­lieved when Jeff Black­ett was lead­ing the hear­ing.

These new rugby di­rec­tives aimed at re­duc­ing any con­tact with the head are un­doubt­edly go­ing to re­sult in more dis­ci­plinary hear­ings over the next weeks and months as play­ers and ref­er­ees get used to them.

There have been a few doom­mon­gers say­ing it has all gone too far. But it has only gone too far if ref­er­ees and dis­ci­plinary groups go to ex­tremes. Aware­ness has now, cor­rectly been height­ened, now it is up to play­ers to re­spond, and of­fi­cials to ap­ply com­mon sense. So long as there is com­mon sense ap­plied – and, of course, there will be times when con­tact with the head is un­avoid­able, that is why I think it is so im­por­tant you have rugby peo­ple on these pan­els – then it could ac­tu­ally have a pos­i­tive ef­fect as a whole. And not just in terms of a re­duc­tion of head in­juries.

Ef­fec­tively play­ers are now be­ing told not to tackle with arms close to the chest, as that risks con­tact with the head if the other player dips or is brought down by an­other tack­ler si­mul­ta­ne­ously. That is go­ing to free up arms for of­fload­ing, which in the­ory should pro­duce faster, more open games. Cer­tainly, if I was an at­tack coach, I would be lick­ing my lips. We will prob­a­bly see ex­tremes of in­ter­pre­ta­tion for a while but I am sure it will set­tle down as play­ers and ref­er­ees get used to what is ex­pected of them. I am cer­tainly in favour of this rather than heav­ier head­gear or other forms of pro­tec­tion. Ul­ti­mately it is up to play­ers and ref­er­ees to man­age the si­t­u­a­tion.

He has to knuckle down now and prove he has learnt his les­son

Prime of his life: Chris Ash­ton, at 29, should be ready to hit the best form of his ca­reer but un­for­tu­nately he sees his fu­ture abroad

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