In September 2015, after crashing out at the group stages as hosts of the World Cup, England needed a change. A top-down overhaul. A change of coach, a change of approach and a change of captain.
Dylan Hartley was that change. Appointed by new coach Eddie Jones in January 2016, Hartley was brought in to carry-out Jones’ philosophy of aggressive, dominant and confrontational rugby.
At the time it was dubbed a risk. Hartley, who had already spent 54 weeks side-lined through bans, had his discipline brought into question: the BBC created a graphic titled ‘Hartley Hall Of Shame = 54 Weeks Of Bans’. It was an intense, media-wide scrutiny of a national leader to a level not subjected on our politicians.
But now – four years later, in the context of the World Cup just gone and as Hartley announces his retirement from rugby with immediate effect – Jones’ risk seems to have paid off.
During his time leading England, Hartley captained the side to two Six Nations wins, including a grand slam in 2016, and two successful away tours: most notably away against Australia in in the same year.
Meanwhile, he engendered a new winning mentality in a team that had just suffered its worst ever World Cup result. Hartley won 85 per cent of his games as captain and led England on all-but-one of their record-equally 18 match unbeaten run between October 2015 and March 2017.
It was a phenomenal moment in English rugby, and Hartley was central to the transformation of the team to what they are today.
And now he is retiring, almost in obscurity, after having featured for neither club nor country since December 2018.
“The last few months have been difficult mentally and physically as I’ve come to terms with the fact I am no longer able to compete,” Hartley has said.
“I am extremely proud of my journey but now is the right time to hang up my playing boots.
Whilst it is Owen Farrell who received all the plaudits as captain of for the World Cup, that team belonged just as much to Hartley. His contribution will not be forgotten.
Written by Will Sewell.