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GARETH THOMAS EXCLUSIVE: What Dylan Hartley did doesn’t count as aggression, it counts as madness

by Aidan Elder | May 28, 2013

Gareth Thomas byline

He’s been there, done that and got the ice-skates. Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas has pretty much done it all. In an exclusive new column for the Paddy Power Blog, he gives you his view on Dylan Hartley and his moment of madness.

After four years of waiting, missing out on a Lions Tour is devastating for Dylan Hartley. But, on the other hand, he’s got his just rewards because you simply cannot do that sort of stuff. You cannot call the referee a ‘fucking cheat’. There’s just no leeway with that. Rightly so.

I like Dylan Hartley because he’s really aggressive and that’s a quality you want in a rugby player regardless of what position he plays. But the trouble is he can’t control his aggression. Missing the Lions tour is the price he pays for a history of not being able to control his aggression.

People who play aggressively, but outside of the rules – like Dylan did for Northampton on Saturday – will ultimately lose you the game. There’s plenty of scope to vent your frustrations during the game. The way to get aggression out of you in rugby is hitting someone hard within the rules and you can get a lot of satisfaction out of that. Otherwise you get the like of what happened at Twickenham – the dissatisfaction and absolute heart-break of being caught verbally abusing the referee. The minute you cross the mark is the minute you let your team down. Getting sent off, in the Premiership final, leaving your team down to 14 men – you’ve got no hope. What Dylan did doesn’t count as aggression, it counts as madness.

Keep it under control

You can be aggressive without breaking the rules. You can smash someone as hard as you can within the rules. If you can’t get your aggression out of you by being able to hit someone as hard as you can within the laws, then I’m not sure how else you can get it out of you. Sly comments to the ref aren’t the way to go. Verbally abusing somebody is not the right way to get it out of you. It’s unacceptable. It’s a cheap shot.

If there is a positive from a Lions point of view, it’s that it happened now. If Dylan had gone on tour, lost his rag in the final minute of a Test and gave away the game-losing three points, that would be unforgivable. Worst case scenario, it could have come in the last minute of the final Test with the series on the line so you could argue we’ve dodged a bullet. It’s a very bittersweet thing.

'Sorry Dylan, we're going to need to get that jersey back off you' (pic: Inpho)

‘Sorry Dylan, we’re going to need to get that jersey back off you’ (pic: Inpho)

I played with so many brilliant players and nice guys who could just fall victim to the red mist descending. I captained for a lot of years and even I was capable of it. You’re pumped up and you have to be, but you need to stop short of breaking the rules. I didn’t always get it right and plenty of others won’t either. You have to learn as you get older.

In my first few years of playing rugby, I’ve been guilty of saying things to the referee that I shouldn’t have and I took the punishment because I deserved it. Once you get punished for it a couple of times, you start to learn how to control it. You get to a point where you realise the implications of your actions are so severe for your team that it’s not worth doing it. If you’ve got a player on your team who is likely to go too far at any point, you need to keep an eye on him, watch the situations he gets himself into. As a leader you jump in and tell him to take out his aggression in the next hit, next scrum or the next line-out.

Aggression isn’t the problem, but sometimes finding the right outlet for it is.

Shock and Law

An 11-week ban might seem harsh to a lot of people, especially people who watch football week in, week out, but given the context of it being a Premiership final and the upcoming Lions tour, they didn’t have much choice. The RFU couldn’t afford to be lenient because of the message it sends out. They’re telling everyone ‘no matter what the circumstances, no matter who you are – if you behave like this, you will be punished and your dreams may be shattered so respect the referee.’

Football might have similar rules, but they’re not enforced with anything like the consistency of rugby. And that’s the problem. If a footballer thinks he can get away with abusing the referee, he’ll do it. If a rugby player speaks to a referee in any other way than asking him a question, he knows he’ll be in trouble. I lot of the players I played with always referred to the referee as ‘Sir’ and that’s brilliant. It sets the tone for the way the referee needs to be treated in the game. People are going hell for leather and trying to knock lumps out of each other, but when it comes to the man in charge, you get ultimate respect.

It’s the bad side of football. People watch football, see these people swearing at the referee and get switched off to it. If the people who run football allow it to happen continually, then it will keep happening. What’s great about rugby is that they won’t allow you to do it, which is unfortunate in this instance if you’re Dylan Hartley. The message is ‘no matter what the circumstances, no matter who you are – if you behave like this, you will be punished and your dreams may be shattered so respect the referee.’

RORY BEST - You wouldn't want to bump into him down a dark alley. Or a well-lit one for that matter (pic: Inpho)

RORY BEST: You wouldn’t want to bump into him down a dark alley. Or a well-lit one for that matter

Rory Best was unlucky not to have been in the original squad so I don’t think the change weakens the squad in any way. He’s had a great season, Ulster have been doing well and he was one of the players I felt was unluckiest to miss out. He fits the space Hartley left perfectly. They’re slightly different types of player, but they’ve a lot of similarities and Rory brings that type of controlled aggression that’s vital on tour. Hartley had the potential to be either a match winner or a match loser and with Rory, you get mainly the ‘match-winner’ possibility because he doesn’t tend to get involved in too many silly situations.

I saw Hartley being called all sorts of names on Twitter when the incident happened on Saturday. He doesn’t seem to be popular with rugby fans outside of England, but I wouldn’t say that would be reflected in how the squad would have viewed him. There’s a simple way of telling if a player is popular with his team-mates. If you want to go around causing trouble off the pitch, then you won’t have the support of your team-mates on the field. Dylan mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but with closing in on 50 England caps to his name, he looks to be popular with his team-mates.

End of the Lion for our losing streak?

There aren’t many massive shocks in the squad that Warren Gatland picked. There’s talent throughout the team, we’re going to have a very strong pack against a more suspect Australian pack – it’s shaping up nicely. They should be thinking about winning in Australia. It’s been a while since they’ve done it, but this is a great opportunity.

The Aussies don’t have the strongest bunch of forwards and in contrast, the Lions can put together a very strong pack. Warren might have an idea of his starting XV now based on club form, but things changes on tour. It’s a different environment for players and they don’t always adapt to it like you’d expect. Some guys settle into to it better and make a case for being in the team even though they may not have been at their best throughout the season. That’s what makes the next few weeks so fascinating.

Come back on Friday to discover who Gareth would have his Lions starting XV for the first Test against Australia and what we need to see against the Barbarians to show the squad is coming together.

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