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
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