Dylan Hartley picks his way through the brightly coloured balloons that light up his house on a rainy morning in the Northamptonshire countryside. His daughter turned five yesterday and, now he has retired from rugby, the former England captain is still enjoying the novelty of being at home with his family in a birthday week. But rugby has battered his body and so he walks gingerly to a comfortable sofa.
Hartley’s love for the game, and his awareness of the toll it exacts, is captured in a line in his startling and compelling new book: “Rugby is great for the soul, but terrible for the body.” Hartley does not want to resemble a victim but his stark testimony is sobering. Anyone who cares about the game, in which he won 97 caps for England and played 250 times for Northampton, should read Hartley’s book or listen when he talks so calmly.
“Rugby normalises pain and injuries,” he says. “A young friend of mine who’s 20 and at the Northampton academy went for an operation yesterday. I texted him: ‘Good luck. The first of many.’ It’s the reality.”
Hartley looks at me. “If you break your leg, it’s a big rehab process for 18 months. Break your leg in rugby and they’re like: ‘Hmmm, we’ll get you back in so many weeks. You’ll make the Six Nations. Let’s get to work.’ That’s brilliant because you’ve got the people and infrastructure to help you. But you normalise it. Like a gash in training. Vaseline it. Gone. Off you go.”
In his book, written by Michael Calvin, Hartley describes how: “One of my marital rituals is having my wife, Jo, bond my ear with surgical glue given to her by the team doctor. It’s home-based Hobbycraft … My cauliflower ears bled, blew up to double the size, and turned purple … You tape your head up and go out to train, because the coach isn’t impressed by your insistence it hurts like hell.”
The 34-year-old tugs cheerfully at his drained ear. “Pain is normalised and that’s where rugby’s values are so good. If you’re hurt, get up. If you fall down, get up. Carry on, kid. I teach my kids that. If you fall over, stand up. Brush yourself off. Rugby’s like that on steroids. Your arm or your leg’s fallen off, but you get up and stand in the defensive line until a break in play. We love that gladiatorial element. The big hits. The fights. But it’s raw.”
How does Hartley feel physically today? “Sore,” he admits.
Does it hurt walking upstairs? “Walking in general. I stay fit and the Lions and England physio came round the other day. He’s given me things to work on. But it’s not ashtray money if I get weekly soft tissue treatment, osteo and physio, aspiration for the swollen knee, a couple of ostinol jabs for the old hip. Lots of players rely on all that every day – so to suddenly not have it is a shock to the system.”
Hartley, who receives no help from the RFU or Northampton, must feel expendable? “That’s the reality. I’m not moaning. It’s the cyclical nature of sport. When you’re a player you’re seen differently: ‘This guy’s an asset. We pay him this much. We need to get him back playing.’ Now it’s like: ‘You’re done, mate. We’ve got others coming through.’ As an ex-player you fall off the cliff. So you do what you do in rugby. You live with it.”
After some matches, Hartley struggled to wipe his own behind. He chortles but soon grows serious because I am disturbed by the revelation that, having suffered so many concussions, he feels dizzy occasionally.
“I got dizzy this morning. I went for a walk and it happened. I’m thinking: ‘Am I hydrated? Is it vertigo?’ You question things.”
Hartley talks fluidly but he admits to sometimes muddling up his words. “I’m thinking is it because of my concussion? But it’s not so bad now. There were times after I was concussed when I would struggle holding a conversation.”
Does he worry about the future consequences? “Yeah, when I think about it I have concerns. When I don’t I just try to enjoy life and be healthy. I think that leads to a better future rather than sitting back and worrying. If I’ve got a sore finger and I go on Google it makes me think I’ve got leprosy. So I’m philosophical and do the right things to make sure my head is in the right space.”
Hartley, in person, is far removed from the cartoon hot-head created by his poor disciplinary record and unforgiving critics. He is amusing and thoughtful. But his words carry a sombre warning. “The last time I talked about this I got a hell of a telling off. I was in the England camp and the media asked: ‘If you get another knock would you reconsider your career?’ I said: ‘Of course – but we’ll deal with that if it happens.’ The headlines were: ‘Hartley worried about career-ending head blows’. I knew people would question my commitment so it wasn’t the place to talk about it.”
He can finally speak freely. “People probably ask why I wasn’t more vocal about these things when I played. But my job was to play rugby and to captain the team. It wasn’t to be a politician. The game is hard enough to play, and play well. It’s very hard when you’re a captain with a media narrative.
“I can tell you the reaction if I had popped my head above the parapet with my views on the game. I had a chequered past, so from minute one it would have been: ‘What’s this grub talking about?’ Two, the narrative was that Jamie George [England’s current hooker] should have been playing. People said I wasn’t good enough, even when I was going well and England went 18 games unbeaten. Some people were just waiting for me to make a mistake. If I had spoken out they would have said: ‘You’re concentrating on players’ rights.’ So I saved my opinions.”
Even when he raised concerns Hartley felt ignored. “I had a problem with artificial pitches. Whenever I played on Saracens’, my knees would blow up and I questioned it with the Players’ Union. They said: ‘We’ve done a report, and 50% of the league don’t mind it but 50% do.’ I said: ‘50% is a huge number and, potentially, all the forwards in the league hate it. What are you going to do?’ They said: ‘We’ll collect more data in a three-year study.’”
Hartley scrunches up his face. “So we’ll be the human widgets – the crash test dummies – and you’ll get your data. By that time I’m fucked and after three years you’ll go: ‘Yeah, artificial pitches aren’t very good.’”
Does he have any hope that meaningful change in rugby will happen? “There’s always hope but change needs to come from within. I fear they’ve had a prime time during Covid to make changes. It feels like the opposite – they’ve crammed more games in. ‘Fuuuck!’ This was such an opportunity to have sat everyone down. But it seems a shambles.”
So player welfare is not going to improve? “Certainly not in England. I can’t see it getting better. How many players play 100 Tests for England? One at the moment. Jason Leonard. I got close. Ben Youngs is right there [on 99 caps]. Look at New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland. Even the Welsh players. Because they’re managed a lot better they play longer. We all say: ‘We’re England fans.’ But the clubs aren’t England fans. I understand. Why would they pay someone ridiculous sums of money and then only have them play 10 games a year?”
Hartley favours central contracts so that England’s leading players concentrate on their international careers. A shorter season and internationals playing 12 to 15 club games would be his practical solution. “I can’t see it happening,” he admits. “But, for us to have a consistently successful international product, players need to focus on England.”
He would also welcome an end to contact training – especially when young reserves are desperate to tear into seasoned internationals. “You’re still recovering from a game so full contact training doesn’t need to exist. But most coaches seem to love it. I’m just telling it how I experienced it. I don’t want to come across as if I’m whinging.”
Recent news stories focused on the book’s opening line as Eddie Jones told Hartley his Test career was over: “You’re fucked, mate…”
Hartley stresses now that: “Eddie did not end my career. My knee ended my career. But he told me the truth when I was hoping to make a comeback. Eddie’s words helped me but that’s not communicated in headlines. It’s brutal. It’s direct. That’s why he’s good. There was no other way to put it: ‘You’re fucked.’”
He laughs. “Eddie actually came here last Sunday after all that shit come out. Imagine the timing! He was over to watch Saints and he came for a coffee beforehand. As soon as he sat down I said: ‘Have you seen the Telegraph?’ ‘Nah, mate.’ I know he sees everything so I said: ‘Mate, they’ve just focused on the juicy side. Without you I wouldn’t have had a Test career [post 2015]. But they’re not going to print that.’ He said: ‘Mate, it is what it is.’”
Hartley describes the bruising relentlessness and inspiration of Jones. “Eddie really mentored me and that’s a dying art. He gave me books and articles and drove me hard. I thrived on it even though it was very uncomfortable. But show me a team that lives in harmony, that is comfortable and everyone’s really kind and best friends.”
Is he glad it’s all over? “Hundred percent. Of course, if I could, I would’ve still loved to play club rugby. But I want to look ahead now.”
Hartley is a bright and perceptive man who understands rugby deeply. Could he become a coach? “Eddie asked me that the other day. I would love to do it but do I want to go back to that life of tension? I saw the best coaches in the world and the hours they put in were incredible. I don’t want to do that. I’ve done it as captain. I’d like a consultancy role, where I add bits here and there. I do some coaching with a local team and help young hookers with their throwing. I love it. I’ve got a ball in my hands. I’m speaking my language and doing what I feel like I’m born to do. But do I want to be in a tracksuit every day? No.
“I’m enjoying life and I’d love to create something for myself. I’d like to roast my own coffee one day. There’re all these romantic ideas but the reality is that the bills keep coming. You’ve got to be practical.”
Hartley points to the book he is reading. “The Daily Stoic,” he says with a grin. “I don’t really understand it. It’s like reading Shakespeare. But I know rugby has given me experiences of stoicism, and I’m grateful. You get hit. You get hurt. You accept it. You keep pushing forward.”
The Hurt by Dylan Hartley is published by Viking.