Six Nations Exclusive - Dylan Hartley

Six Nations Exclusive - Dylan Hartley

The final round of the Six Nations has plenty to live up to following last weekend's stunning results that saw England and Italy with shock wins over Ireland and Scotland!

Former England capatain and England's most capped hooker, Dylan Hartley returns to the zone for the final round with his expert opininons and predictions for the weekend's action.

Get In the Zone with Dylan for round 5 of the Six Nations.


On Round 4 Of The Six Nations

One of the great Six Nations weekends – does that rank up there as one of the best weekend’s we’ve seen in the tournament in recent years?

The two big results from the perceived underdogs (England beating Ireland & Italy beating Scotland) gives a pretty good overview of where the game is at the top level right now. That is what makes the game great and the real positive about Rugby Union is that, on a team’s day, anyone can beat anyone.

I think Italy have been performing really well throughout the tournament. There has been a lot of noise about adding relegation to the Six Nations and Italy being the perennial whipping boys of the tournament; conversations about how they haven’t won in Rome for ten or eleven years and then they go and pull a victory against Scotland out of the bag. I also think they should have won the week before, so that makes the tournament interesting.

Ireland going for back-to-back Grand Slams – it has never been done – and it won’t happen this year. I was part of an England team that tried doing it and we couldn’t then because it is an unbelievably hard challenge. The perceived underdog in England, a team that aren’t performing as well as they can, media and fan pressure on them…the narrative was ‘same old England’ and then they go and produce a ten-out-of-ten performance against Ireland that was beautiful to see from a tactical and skill level but also from an emotional level. I think the lesson that England will take from Ireland is that that is the standard that needs to be set - that’s the barometer for what it takes to beat the very best and England will need to replicate that intensity as a bare minimum against France this weekend to leave the tournament on a positive note.

What is the expectation on England heading to France now?  How hard will it be for these players to back-up that performance against Ireland with a positive showing in Lyon?

That will be the key question for England. How can we replicate the intensity of the Ireland performance against France. For such a young, developing squad, they will now understand what it takes to win test matches against top opposition. When your skill level is very high and your tactical understanding and awareness is very high, you can get by winning games, but when you sprinkle on top of that the emotion and the intensity that England played with, that is when you get world-class performances and that is what you saw at the weekend. It was a performance where everything was done to an eight-nine-ten-out-of-ten level.

The challenge for England now is to understand that is how hard it is (if you want to be the best). You could see how emotionally drained some of the guys were afterwards, we heard that in the interviews of Ben Earl, Jamie George and Danny Care – emotional interviews, but that is the standard that it takes to produce a performance like that against a well-oiled machine in Ireland. If we’re being realistic, the result could have gone the other way as well and then we would be sat here saying, “England played well, but they lacked the maturity and experience required to win the game, but we’ve beaten Italy and Wales in matches that required the team showed character and fight to get the right result. In the Scotland defeat, our game understanding was poor, our skill level wasn’t good, and the intensity wasn’t good enough. You’re never going to win a game like that when those three areas aren’t good enough.”

England have been talking throughout the tournament about making the fans proud of the team; an intent to play. A new England. The stats have shown that they are trying to deliver on that – they are passing the ball a lot. Against Scotland it didn’t happen for England and the result showed that if your fundamentals aren’t right, you can get punished, which is what happened. Duhan van der Merwe got his hattrick, but then, when you get it right, it’s unbelievable and, I think the proof is in the pudding of what this England team has been trying to show at the tournament with the performance against Ireland at the weekend. The approach to the tournament has been justified by the result against Ireland. That performance showed that this might be a young team, but it’s a serious one. To do what they did against a mature Ireland side who have been performing really well, will give England huge confidence going forward.

On England v Ireland

You mentioned the intensity of England’s play having a massive impact, but were there any other key elements to that England performance and what players stood out in your opinion?

I think Ben Earl did well. He received a lot of plaudits for his performance in the match. I really like the Leicester Tigers paring of Ollie Chessum and George Martin. That is everything that England need in the engine room at second/back row. They are uncomplicated guys. Straight-up, hard-nose. For young players, it’salmost likethey’ve taken to test matches like they were born to do it. They are proper test match animals who I have loved to watch play. I think that combination frees up a guy like Maro Itoje to put in world-class performances because he only has to focus on what he does best.

Jamie George played an exceptional game. Individual performances were fantastic across the pitch. There was a lot of talk about ruck speed,  but that comes with intensity and the ball carrying. That comes in accuracy in the shape of attack. Rugby can be a bit chicken and egg sometimes and all these things feed each other. If you’ve got good width and good shape, then you’ve got good passing options and good ball carries with one-on-one defence instead of two-on-one defence. The whole thing feeds itself. I don’t think England were perfect in everything that they wanted to do against Ireland, but the fight and intensity that they’ve shown (made the difference). Effort can make up for a lot of stuff. England’s defensive system has hurt them in games – it’shigh risk, high reward. There have been times when they’ve been rewarded and there have been times when Ireland got the ball away and they were punished.

Effort and scramble defence, because scramble defence is about survival, they made it work. There were a couple of big moments early in the game. Tommy Freeman had a big, strong carry against Calvin Nash. I don’t want to say that putting a player off the field is a good thing, but a physical moment like that gives your team a massive lift early in a game. An early score also helps.

Everything about the performance was pretty damn good. The injection of new blood from the bench – giving Marcus Smith the reigns; Theo Dan’s impact. Chandler Cunningham-South – that ball carry – that was like he demanded the ball, and he ran as fast as he could with such intent. When you’re teammates see you do something like that, it’s inspirational. You start to think ‘we’re in this, let’s go’.

Is a player like Chandler Cunningham-South the difference between an international player and playing at a high-level for your club? He is twenty-years-old and has played a fair bit for Quins and done well, but you could argue there are a lot of other players that you could argue could be in front of him in the England queue. Is there something that he offers that makes him more suited to international rugby?

I don’t personally know him, but what I would say about Chandler, objectively, is that the one thing he offers is hope for the future. Borthwick could pick someone that is tried and tested (in his position), but you know what that’s about. He wouldn’t be in the position he is in now being uncoachable. If you look at the athlete that he is, the performances that we’ve seen from him at club level and the glimpses of him in an England shirt, if you can coach him, which you obviously can and he wants to get better, you then look at the physical specimen that he is, it’s almost like give me a year or two with that and let’s see what we can turn this guy into. He’s going to be a monster.

It was the same with Maro Itoje. Maro came in and he grew into the position. Chandler has youthful exuberance on his side, energy. England are building with an eye for the future. If England were picking tried and tested players this far into a Six Nations, in the first year of a World Cup cycle, I would be critical of that approach.

England have got George Ford, Jamie George, Dan Cole, Joe Marler, and as much as I would love to see those guys play in another World Cup cycle, I don’t know if they are going to be around. There’sdefinitely a balance to strike and, I think that with what we’re seeing is an England team thinking about the future. I know that Chandler went off injured, but he got a taste of a big game, the time that he was on the field, he did pretty well.


As dramatic as Smith’s drop goal was – should England have been pushing for the bonus point try?

First things first, I think we need some hindsight here if we’re talking about whether England should have gone for the bonus point try against Ireland. If we had gone for the corner, scrum, tap and go and England lost the game, we would be kicking ourselves.

The only other thing that England could have done would have been to keep the ball for a bit longer, tighter around the ruck. I wouldn’t have tried anything too expansive. Ultimately, there was a free shot there to have a go and, I’mpretty certain that the penalty, on the right foot to the left of the sticks, is a ten-out-of-ten, 100% completion all day.

Hindsight is great. Maybe a few more phases to see where we could have got to, all Ireland are going to do there is infringe, infringe, and infringe. We were always going to take the three points (at that stage in the game). It was a fantastic moment; the intensity was high and all we can do is celebrate that moment against a team a lot of people think are the best in the world. I’m not calling them the best in the world – every South African or Kiwi won’t be able to sit still when they hear that (laughs) – but Ireland area very good side.

Do you think there is a place for bonus points in the 6 Nations?

I think bonus points are great. The mindset in the tournament, it doesn’t really matter who you play against, most of the games are pretty tight; pretty gnarly. I can remember a game way back when, 2015 against France, where we needed to win on points difference. We won the game 50 to 40.

The mindset shift where teams know they must go out and score is great for the game. It shifts the focus. It takes the shackles off. The irony was that if we had actually conceded one less try against Italy, then we would have won the tournament, but we fell short that year.

I think it encourages teams to play and adds drama and different dynamics to the game. It adds learning experiences like the example I’ve just given.

Teams that are winning and winning by playing, scoring tries, should be rewarded. I think it’s a good thing.

What lessons will Ireland take from that game?

The Ireland that we’ve seen will bounce back from the defeat against England, I have no doubt about that. Ireland will need a big emotional response because the tournament is basically theirs if they want it, they just need to go and get it. They’re playing in Dublin as well, so lifting a trophy on home soil, there isn’t a bigger motivating factor than that.

They’ve lost three games out of the last twenty-five or twenty-six games – they are still a class team. The result against England wasn’t a reflection on them as a team or them being poor, it’s a reflection on how competitive things are at the top of the international game. It’svery open and exciting at the moment.

Ireland didn’t even bounce back from the Rugby World Cup they just kept on going. They played well against New Zealand, they were just pipped. They played well, it just wasn’t enough. I don’t think Ireland will bounce back so to speak, they will just continue to play great rugby and I have no doubts that they will lift the trophy.

On Wales

Wales’s future in the Six Nations

You have to think what this tournament is going to look like if Italy continue to make the right steps in their development. Dupont is going to come back for France and that will help them get over that little hangover they are still suffering from after the World Cup. Ireland, England and Scotland will continue in the same vein of form.

You look at Wales, and what they are going through as a young team at the moment, then you look ahead to what they are going to be doing in a couple of seasons. The Six Nations won’t be about picking a winner and a wooden spoon anymore, it will be so open and bonus points might be the deciding factor. 

Warren Gatland has been with Wales for a long time. They are rebuilding. This is a massive project. Is he the right man for the job?

I think that Warren Gatland is the right man at the moment because they’ve brought him back. Wales are doing the right thing in terms of rebuilding the team, picking young players.

If you look at Andy Farrell at Ireland, that was an internal promotion and part of succession planning. Borthwick is the same with England.

I find it interesting that Wales haven’t developed their own coaches. Wales is a rugby nation. There must be a tonne of ex-players that would love to be involved with the team and there must be a tonne of aspirational young coaches. Why haven’t they got some of their own people coming through the ranks in terms of their own coaching? That is something I find interesting. It’s interesting that they haven’t done that (developed their own coaches).

We have to admit that Warren Gatland has been hugely successful with Wales. I think his biggest success could be finding a successor to carry on the good work he has done with Wales.

You could argue that Wales have overachieved with Gatland involved. They’ve won it plenty of times, even when they weren’t considered favourites…they seem to be at the bottom of a dip at the moment.

Wales have publicly said they are rebuilding. I love those comments because, if I was a Welsh rugby fan, I can forgive the fact that my team isn’t winning because they are watering the grass, and the grass will get greener. They will get better. They are blooding young players and giving them experience that will hold them in good stead for the future. In the years to come, I think Welsh fans will see the befits of what they’re doing now.

It's been a tough period for them. I think a little bit of a reminder is needed for people that are being too critical of Wales (at the moment). Things take time. Grand Slam winning teams take time.

On Italy

Is there an argument that Italy have been the most “impressive” team this year?

I think impressive is such a subjective term. Wales are clearly in the middle of a rebuild, and I think Italy are growing. England are in a rebuild. Ireland are in the continuing phase, Scotland are the same.

Impressive? I just think Italy have shown the rugby world a really good response and quietened down a lot of the noise about them being one of the teams that should potentially be relegated from the tournament or are there to make up the numbers. They have won one game at the tournament. They should have beaten France – I would have liked to have seen them given a retake on their penalty because players moving when you’re kicking shouldn’t happen. They’ve given a good account of themselves at the tournament. The Italian’s are no mugs and their performances have highlighted that they are a team that is only going to get better.

Then you’ve got a guy like Louis Lynagh who has chosen to represent Italy. A player like Lynagh could have had a shot with England. His performances at club-level put him in the conversation for a potential England call-up, but I love that the fact that he has gone and said: “I want to play for Italy, this is my nation.” You can only see that having a positive effect on other players that will want to follow in his footsteps and do the same.

The back line is incredibly young, and they will improve.

The longer the team are together, the better they will become.

On Relegation From The Six Nations

The conversation shouldn’t be about relegation. The focus and responsibility must be on developing the game in places like Portugal, Romania, Georgia and Spain. Developing something like a secondary tournament or something there – I would love Lisbon on the list of away trips. There must be a way to grow the game within Europe.

Relegation isn’ta feasibleoption. All the participating countries are stake holders and will have a say on it, so why would they vote for it? You wouldn’t.


On The Final Round Of The Six Nations

Wales vs Italy

If there is one thing the Welsh can do, when their back is against the wall, they can come out swinging. I’ve been on the back end of that. Italy will be spurred on by a fantastic performance against Scotland. How can they carry that mantle into this game?

There’s an expectation around Italy. You could make quite a compelling argument that they would be favourites, which is crazy when you’re playing Wales in Cardiff.

I was commentating on the game where Josh Adams was given the man-of-the-match as he was getting skinned by Capuozzo who set-up the winner when Wales lost 22-21 to Italy in 2022. I think Wales put on a good showing in France, but they came up against a team that was just too strong.

I think Wales can do it. I think Wales will win it because of the fear the players will have of not winning a game at the tournament.

Italy will be coming down from the emotional high of beating Scotland

How well do the Italian’s travel? I think it will be a great game.

Ireland vs Scotland

I think Ireland’s motivation and opportunity makes them favourites in Dublin. If there is a team that can upset anyone, it is probably Scotland, but they just can’t seem to win games back-to-back. It’s a consistency issue that they struggle with which must be an emotional problem.

I still think Ireland are far too cohesive. They’ll be aware that they will need to be really good this weekend after what happened against England.

France vs England

I think England will get over there and that internal drive from the team to finish the tournament on a high before facing Japan and New Zealand in the summer will be a motivational factor. They will want the lasting memory of the tournament to be a good one.

I think England can be really proud of themselves if they win this weekend. The true test for England is to back-up that performance against Ireland when they play France, who are not mugs. They will have to play with the same intensity, desire and skill level to win over there. Two wins in a row against two good teams will put England in good stead for a summer trip Down Under. I think New Zealand will be watching intently. It’s a chance for England to recement themselves as a contender. 

When you’re a professional sat in the changing room before a big game, you don’t look at the odds, you don’t look at form and you don’t look at who the favourite is. You know that man-for-man, you can go out there and win. I think this is a good opportunity for England to remind the world that they are a still a proper team with good athletes, good players, and this is a good test for them.

If they can win against France, then that gives England the chance to leave the Six Nations on a high. After the Ireland performance, they have a good barometer of where they need to be at to beat good teams. It is a good challenge for them.

It almost feels like England believe that they can beat anyone. Everyone thought Ireland were going to walk it on Saturday. Even when they’re not playing very well, England believe they can beat any team in the world.

We don’t accept the underdog tag. England should believe that they can beat any team in the world. That is belief, it’s not arrogance. As soon as a team buys into being cast as the underdog, you’re buying into being subservient, sub-standard. Not good enough.

You create a gap between yourself and the opponent. You don’t want to put yourself on that pedestal. We never did that as a team. Externally, we were happy for people to use that language when describing the team, but that is never a message we would convey to each other. You know man-for-man how hard you work.

This team works incredibly hard and believes in itself. They are an incredibly close, tightknit group. They have a great captain in Jamie George who has shown great strength within himself. For him to have the individual performance that he had against Ireland was great.

Look, England are a proper rugby team. I’ll keep saying it. No one likes us because we are a proper rugby team. Even the South Africans and the Kiwi’s would acknowledge that because they know they are going to be in for a good game when England come to town. There is an expectation with England. We have a long, proud line of rugby history and we come out swinging when we need too.


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