Australian Eddie Jones came in to shake up English rugby. Appointed after an underwhelming World Cup campaign, speculation began over whether Jones – who’d had success as manager of Australia and masterminded Japan’s shock upset of South Africa – would clear out Stuart Lancaster’s trusted cohort and rebuild a new-look team with a young core. His solution was to blend experience with youth and offer a second chance to some players frozen out under Lancaster. Dylan Hartley, the New Zealand-born hooker, who’s had a career dogged by disciplinary problems was among the players offered a reprieve. Jones went a step further, and surprised the rugby world by offering the Northampton Saints’ hooker the England captaincy. Hartley leapt at the chance and is now reflecting on an unbeaten 10 months in the job.
Did the captaincy feel like a fresh start?
Yes, certainly, he [Eddie Jones] said that everyone had a clean slate and a fresh start, so I was just pleased to get back there. And since day one, Eddie and his guys have put their trust in me. I’m not perfect, I know that, but I have every intention of doing the best I can and not letting the man down.
What was the reaction of your team mates?
[Laughing.] There was only one reaction they could give me really, that was to congratulate me and wish me the best. No one came over and said I’d be really unsuitable for the role or anything, everyone was nice to me. But along with that came increased expectation and pressure. We obviously delivered in the first tournament but we’re always thinking ahead to the next challenge.
Before the Six Nations, you mentioned that people wanted you to fail, what did you mean?
Just the negative questions and headlines I got, all about disciplinary stuff from ex players and people in the media. I know these things come with the territory, but it was nice to prove some people wrong. There was criticism from the outside but it’s nice to be able to look people in the eye and know that I’ve achieved success. It’s hard not to be affected by the criticism but in time maybe the perception will change around me.
What was the attitude in the squad like going into the Six Nations?
I think having the new boss helped, everyone was highly motivated and keen to impress. It helped me that the core of the squad has been around for four or five years, and had finished runners-up for the last four years, so everyone had that as an internal, motivating factor. The team were disappointed with their performance at the World Cup so there were things they had to rectify. Motivation was really high.
You met with Steve Peters, the sports psychologist. Was he able to help you?
I only met with him once actually. I got into some trouble on the pitch a couple of weeks after we met, so I don’t think I’d be a glowing reference on his CV or anything! I think personally, having a family has helped add some perspective. Before, my life was just rugby, rugby, rugby. I used to drive home after a loss and think about rugby, lie in bed and think about rugby. There’s more to do now, and more things to think about, so I can switch off.
In terms of the Australia tour, did the travelling affect your captaincy?
The Six Nations is obviously mid season and by the end of the end of year tour the guys who’d played at the World Cup had been playing rugby for 12 months. So keeping people going physically was the big challenge, so we didn’t really beast the guys in training. Mentally we had to keep the guys going for another three weeks and not thinking about their holidays, or how they’d had a long season, but about how we could make history. Everyone bought into that, and everyone drove it, not just me, we worked collectively.
How was that motivation maintained throughout the tour?
We said it wasn’t just three games tagged on the end of the season; they were three games where we could potentially make history. Everyone from number 1 to 32 contributed, everyone brought something to the table, even the eight or nine boys who weren’t involved on the match day, players like Kyle Sinckler, who didn’t play a game but drove standards in training.
How special do you think this current England side is?
Well, we’ve done what we set out to do. The core of the squad had been together through four years of disappointment, but it’s now a blend of young and old. But at the moment we feel like we’re evolving and never standing still, the older guys like Mike Brown, Danny Care, Chris Robshaw, myself, it feels like we’re being kept on our toes by all the young talent coming through the whole time. As soon as you’re standing still, your shirt is up for grabs.
Among that emerging talent is Maro Itoje, who’s really shone. What do you think he brings to the team?
He’s got big energy, he’s a big person physically, and he uses that weight well. He seems to be improving with every game, he’s hungry and he’s got a desire to improve, but he’s not the finished article. I am sure Steve Borthwick and Eddie have got plenty for him to work on. But he’s already an integral part of our team.
After the tour Eddie Jones mentioned a need to be tighter defensively. How do you go about ensuring these things are fixed long term as well?
I think there are fundamentals to our game that we should pride ourselves on. Things like set pieces, defence, they are the fundamentals we shouldn’t have to revise. And we’re still working on that; in the first game we let in four tries and we followed it up the next week with our best defensive effort as a team, but it shouldn’t take four tries the week before to highlight that. We played a hell of a good side, an attacking side in Australia, but the positive sign is that we can react and respond to things on the field during the game and then the following week rectify things in training.
When do you start thinking about the autumn games?
During the off-season. We’ve just had an England camp so we met up to discuss the autumn, talk through a few things and do some light training. It keeps the boys hungry and focused on the bigger picture. But we have jobs with our clubs first and want to keep playing good domestic rugby.
How much is the Lions tour to New Zealand in your head?
Yeah I missed out on the last one [ in 2013], and that was obviously my own fault, but being in New Zealand it would be extra special, the place where I grew up. I’d love to make that tour, it’d be a dream come true, but there’s a lot of rugby to be played between now and then. And if you don’t perform at club level, then these things aren’t options. Eddie’s always told me to just focus on being the best I can be in my position and hopefully everything else will take care of itself.
Dylan Hartley wears the new Canterbury England Rugby jersey, available now from sportsdirect.com