Dylan Hartley has said friends reacted to the news he had missed out on England’s Rugby World Cup squad almost as though he had died – and that he still wakes up most nights thinking about losing the chance to lead out Eddie Jones’ side in Japan.
The 33-year-old hooker, who has not played since injuring his left knee playing for Northampton in December, also revealed than an aggressive rehabilitation programme designed to get him on the plane to Tokyo left him in a physical and mental “hole” – but he has no plans to retire.
“When the World Cup squad was announced, it was almost like I’d died,” said Hartley. “Friends getting in touch and seeing if I was OK.
“Ultimately the way I looked at my whole rugby career, and how I wanted it to pan out, was that this would have been the ultimate send-off, the dream finish to an international career. The reality is you pick up an injury.
“For four years we have talked about winning the World Cup with Eddie and I have led that group, been a part of that journey, so to fall at the final hurdle … I wake up most nights thinking about it. It doesn’t sit well with me but I have come to terms with it. You have to crack on. But it’s just shit.”
Hartley, who captained England from 2016 until being injured and has 97 caps for his country, said he still holds out faint hopes of again playing for England. But he admitted the chances are slim to nonexistent.
“I genuinely think England, they’ve got as good a chance to go and do it,” he said. “The worst thing for me is to think if my leg wasn’t fucked at the moment I could be there with them, winning a World Cup. It’s hard to swallow, really. I hope they go and win.”
A smiling Hartley added: “I’ll get on and be a glory supporter: ‘Remember me guys?’ In my headspace, I am still kind of hoping to be involved, but the reality is I am not going to be unless there are a couple of horrific injuries.”
Hartley said his injury had been aggravated by a rigorous push to prove his fitness but he understood the need for tough deadlines to be set by the England management team. “I tried a very aggressive approach, because I was given some deadlines to meet, and it did not work,” he said. “I basically ended up in a worse position for trying to come back too early. I tried getting back for the start of the camps in July and basically put myself in a bit of a hole physically and mentally.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s the way it goes. Other people have missed out, mine’s not a special story. I am no different to Devin Toner, Owen Franks with the All Blacks or the other guys in the England team that did not go. It’s a highly competitive animal is sport, especially rugby. The game moves fast – it doesn’t wait. I can understand why there were deadlines. The team needed to prepare and, if I can’t physically help them to prepare, I can understand why I wasn’t needed.”
Hartley said he would like to ban playing professional rugby on artificial pitches, having injured his knee on Worcester’s artificial grass in December. “I don’t agree with them,” he said. “I’d played the fortnight before and I’d tweaked my knee in a game, then I played on an artificial pitch the following week and probably playing on an injury didn’t help. If there’s a platform to show my support for getting rid of artificial pitches, it’s here. It might be suited to under-10s or under-12s but from a personal point of view I don’t like them.”
However, Hartley insisted he had no plans to retire and believes he is back on track to play again for Northampton after spending his family’s holiday budget flying to Philadelphia to see Bill Knowles, a world-class reconditioning expert who has worked with Andy Murray.
“I had a chance encounter with Eddie at Wimbledon [and he] suggested it,” he added. “I spent a fortnight out there, spent the family’s holiday money. This guy is world-renowned, the best going. It was one-on-one for four or five hours a day. It is intense. I felt like I was not progressing how I wanted to before going out there. It has given me a nice little springboard to slowly go on the up.”