Rugby hurts. It demands mental resilience and resistance to pain. It explores character, beyond a capacity to endure punishment – so says Dylan Hartley, former England captain and Northampton Saints club legend.
In his yet-to-be-released autobiography, Hartley – who played 251 times in Black, Green and Gold between 2005 and 2019 – tells a story of hard men and harsh truths.
In this exclusive extract for www.northamptonsaints.co.uk, the 97-time England international remembers the build-up to and the aftermath from Saints’ 2013 Premiership Final appearance, where he was sent off as Northampton went down to East Midlands rivals Leicester Tigers.
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At club level, our culture was thriving. We were flying in the Premiership, and players were starting to push persistently for international recognition. The chemistry of the season seemed perfect; a special buzz, created in the sanctuary of the dressing room at Franklin’s Gardens, extended across the town.
Northampton’s history of failure in five previous Premiership semi-finals hung like a toxic cloud over Saracens’ new artificial pitch, at the bottom of the M1. They had finished top of the table in the regular 22-match season, twelve points ahead of us, and were prohibitive favourites. They were the self-styled wolfpack; we made them look like pussy cats.
Reaching our first Twickenham final, in a ferocious performance that blended pace and precision under pressure, meant everything on a personal and professional level. My two muckers in the front row, Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha, were immense in a 27–13 win that was, in effect, their leaving present.
The team were brothers-in-arms. The fans were ecstatic. The symmetry of renewing traditional tribal rivalry with Leicester in the final merely added to a sense of destiny, on the verge of fulfilment. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, an awful lot…
I was not in a good place. I withdrew into myself, and had no interest in engaging with the outside world. I blamed myself for the hurt I had inflicted on people I would never really know, beyond chance encounters in the local laundromat or in the aisle of my nearest supermarket. I had betrayed their trust, and sacrificed their innocence.
They had self-consciously offered their best as I walked to training, or wobbled along on the bike with a permanently flat tyre. They had invested in me emotionally as leader of the history boys, the first group of players to give a small town the chance of basking in the glory of national supremacy. It was meant to be Northampton’s year, our title. It was a big, big deal.
"It was meant to be Northampton’s year, our title. It was a big, big deal."Dylan Hartley
So much for folk heroes and fairy tales; Disney’s scriptwriting team evidently took the day off on Saturday, 25 May 2013. The magnitude of our 37–17 defeat to Leicester in the Premiership final at Twickenham, and the manner of my sending off, for supposedly abusing the referee just before half-time, tainted everything.
Engulfed by controversy, and haunted by the assumption I had let down my teammates, as well as the supporters who had travelled in record numbers, I had also to come to terms with its cost.
I would never wear the contents of the British & Irish Lions kit bag, stored with due expectation in a bedroom at home. The handmade suit for that summer ’s tour of Australia would remain in the wardrobe.
I treated my phone as toxic, but felt obliged to reply to one of the many voicemails left in the twenty-four hours after the game. It was from Leon Barwell, who had stepped down as Northampton chairman earlier that month on medical advice. His voice was faltering but his humanity was deeply affecting; he had rung to check that I was OK.
The son of Keith Barwell, our owner, Leon passed away little more than a fortnight later, aged forty-six, following an eighteen-month battle against bowel cancer. He knew death was near; the trip to Twickenham, designed as one last occasion to be shared with his family, visibly took a lot out of him, but he remained on the pitch afterwards, consoling the team.
"As players, we often get carried away by the minutiae of performance and the exaggerated emotions of our trade, but this was a moment to pause, and reflect on the game’s deepest, and most painful lessons."Dylan Hartley
Rugby is an evocative sport, because of its rawness, and its worth cannot be adequately measured by caps, medals and trophies.
As I have got older, I have come to realize that its lasting significance lies in the quality of the friendships that are formed, often under fire. I’ve already spoken of my affinity with Paul Tupai, my brother by another mother. My relationship with Leon, although not as close, was another indication of the ties that bind, through sport.
He became a Saints Director in 1999, and succeeded his father as Chairman in 2011. He was a successful businessman and in true family tradition called a spade a bloody shovel. He was approachable, far-sighted and fair-minded. He believed in the ethos of rugby, as a game for all with well-defined values, and actively involved season ticket holders in the decision-making process.
The club game is built upon the generosity, perseverance and wisdom of such men. I got to know him though his attendance, every Friday, at the Captain’s Run, a distinctive pre-match ritual that is one of the milestones of our working week. His physical deterioration over the last year of his life was obvious, yet his spiritual commitment to club and team seemed to grow in intensity. He loved to talk about the game, and its immense possibilities.
His legacy is a charitable foundation, established in his name. It provides emotional and financial support to families of cancer sufferers, by funding special days out and a unique range of personalized events that help to provide everlasting memories. It is too easy to overlook the fact that one in three families struggle to pay utility bills in the event of a loved one’s diagnosis with the disease.
Leon’s final act of understated, unrecognized kindness, in being sufficiently concerned to seek me out, was typical, but uniquely inspirational. How could I obsess about the unfairness of my situation? What right did I have to bemoan my fate and ignore my blessings? Without knowing it, he helped me hold it together.
His example forced me to push my shoulders back, and front up to the world.