The Northampton Saints hooker is considered a serial offender, having racked up 50 weeks of suspensions for some unsavoury incidents not limited to gouging, biting, striking opponents and calling a referee a cheat.
I know when I get it right I can do the business on the day, so I wasn’t worried about being dropped.
The 28-year-old’s latest major crime resulted in a three-week ban after he was red carded for use of an elbow in the East Midlands derby against Leicester Tigers in December.
If the warning signs weren’t already sounding loudly at England’s Pennyhill Park base as Lancaster and his fellow England coaches were beginning to consider their selections for the Six Nations, they would have been in his comeback game when he was yellow carded for tackling on the ground int the Saints’ European Champions Cup match against Racing Metro.
What followed was a PR exercise from the great and good of English rugby, some in Hartley’s corner, others not so. There were reminders briefed to the press around player discipline, while more serious talks took place behind the scenes.
But Hartley is confident that his playing abilities have allowed him to retain his place as England’s first-choice hooker for this year’s championship, despite his disciplinary issues.
“It was said that Stuart had a perfect opportunity to drop me, but I think I’ve given him the reason to keep me here in the first two games,” Hartley said.
“I’m not an enforcer. Someone like Billy Vunipola is our enforcer.
“My set-piece is my first and foremost role and I think that’s why Stuart has got me in the team. I’m confident in my ability there. I know what I’m good at and I’m happy with that.
“I know when I get it right I can do the business on the day, so I wasn’t worried about being dropped.
“I don’t think anyone on the field wants to get yellow cards.
“There’s a fine line and cards seem to find their way to me. I’m well aware of that before I take the field.
“I understand what the perception of me is. Whenever I can, I change that, but unfortunately it’s hard to change.
“And every now and then I give them something to keep that perception alive.”
Amid a lengthening list of England players picking up championship-threatening injuries, Lancaster also had to deal with an array of questions about Hartley’s place, not just in the team, but in the squad.
But he has certainly proved his worth to Lancaster in England’s wins in the opening two rounds against Wales and Italy.
Up next is a bigger test both for England and Hartley’s ability to keep his cool in the heat of battle on the biggest stage as the Red Rose head to Dublin to face reigning champions Ireland in a potential championship decider on Sunday.
Ireland are the current champions. We want to be champions and I don’t think there’s any shame in saying that…if we want it we’re going have to go out there and win this weekend.
England have the upper hand over their rivals in recent seasons, but even a win over Joe Schmidt’s side at Twickenham last year couldn’t help England win the title as Ireland gave Brian O’Driscoll the perfect send off by claiming the crown by defeating France in their final game.
While England collected the Triple Crown last year, there is plenty of unfinished business as the Red Rose go in search of a first title in the Lancaster era, having also lost out on the final day of 2013 championship when chasing a Grand Slam as they were stunned by Wales in Cardiff.
Hartley, who has tasted the bitter taste of coming second so often in club rugby, insists that England will arrive at the Aviva Stadium full of confidence after the first two rounds and they want to get their hands on the new Six Nations trophy, which was unveiled at the tournament launch in London last month.
“We don’t want to be plucky losers and all that,” Hartley added.
“At Northampton we experienced four semi-finals and lost, we went to Heineken Cup final and lost, we went to a Premiership final and lost.
“There is plenty of hurt and there have been plenty of downs. At some stage it has got to come right for this team.
“We have experienced a lot of near-misses so something has to come right soon.
“The way we have started this Six Nations means we can be confident, but I suppose it will come down to this weekend.
“Ireland are the current champions. We want to be champions and I don’t think there’s any shame in saying that.
“They are the current holders and we want that trophy. If we want it we’re going have to go out there and win this weekend.”
Lancaster names his side to face Ireland on Friday morning.
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