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Dylan Hartley interview: 'England tilt at World Cup glory is bittersweet to watch - but I've accepted disappointment'

BTSport.com sits down for a revealing interview with former England captain Dylan Hartley as the Northampton Saints hooker prepares to watch his former teammates play on the biggest stage in world rugby.

For one former England captain, Saturday’s World Cup final in Yokohama is likely to inspire a sense of ‘what if?’

When Eddie Jones succeeded Stuart Lancaster as head coach following England’s humiliating pool-stage exit in 2015, Northampton  hooker Dylan Hartley was the Australian’s surprise choice as captain.

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Eyebrows were raised given the hooker’s disciplinary record but the decision proved a masterstroke.

Working closely with Jones, Hartley led England to 17 consecutive wins across 2016 and 2017 until injury put the brakes on his international career.

Hartley has not played a competitive game since December and ultimately missed out on the World Cup squad despite an aggressive rehabilitation programme designed to get him fit for Japan.

This weekend, instead of leading his country out in Japan, the 33-year-old will be watching on when Owen Farrell performs that duty against South Africa.

Having been there at the start of the re-building project, Hartley admits it has been tough to watch his former teammates edge closer to realising the target set back in 2015.

“It is bittersweet. I’m obviously disappointed [not to be playing],” said Hartley.

“From day one when we met as a squad we said we wanted to be the best team in the world and we were going to win the World Cup.

“Four years ago I don’t think anybody believed that but this weekend the guys have an opportunity to achieve what we set out to do after four years hard work.

“While I’m disappointed, to stop the internal battle, you have to accept these things.

“It’s quite nice to watch the game now and enjoy it for what it is.

“But equally I’m watching it and I feel the emotions, the anxiety, the expectation and pressure – all the things that go with playing the game.”

Hartley, who has 97 caps for his country, says he still has ambitions to play for England again. But for now his focus is on Northampton Saints and recovering from the injury that has kept him out for the last 11 months.

“Injury is no different to suspension and I’ve had plenty of those so I’ve learnt how to deal with struggles and setbacks,” he said, with a wry smile.

“It’s about breaking the process down. Everyone says ‘when are you going to be back’ and they focus on the long term whereas just about every sportsman I know concentrates on the day to day.”

“I know where I want to go and what I need to do, but ultimately it’s about what I’m doing tomorrow morning and that afternoon to get through that day. It’s all about baby steps.”

Hartley has refused to be drawn on when he expects to return to playing action and insists he has no plans to retire yet.

What is clear is the New-Zealand-born forward is determined to force his way back into a Saints side very much on the up.

Chris Boyd’s arrival at the start of last season sparked a transformation that saw the east Midlanders secure a top-four finish with a late-season surge to the finish line.

Hopes of a first Gallagher Premiership crown in four years were extinguished by defeat to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park but Hartley is hopeful Northampton’s young starlets can build on last season’s heroics.

“Last year Chris Boyd came in with a new philosophy on how we wanted to attack and we had a lot of injures with a lot of young guys having to step up,” he said.

“Now, this season, those young guys have got the confidence in themselves to go and play on the big stage.

“That philosophy has had a good year and a whole pre-season behind now on how we want to attack and play the game.

“There are obvious examples like that but I suppose there’s times in a game when young guys like James Grayson are going to have to learn when to keep playing, when to play territory and weigh up risk versus reward.

“Ultimately we all want to win, but there will be times in a game when you have to be slightly more pragmatic.

“But our philosophy is to attack. We play to our strengths. We aren’t the biggest most physical team, but we have a skillset that allows to attack and play.”

Two wins from their opening two games – including a surprise win over reigning premiers Saracens - have inevitably led to suggestions that Saints are genuine contenders.

But at this early stage Hartley is adamant his side do not lose sight of the next game, starting this Friday against Harlequins – live on BT Sport 1 and BT Sport Ultimate.

“Ultimately, we’re concentrating on improving on last year so we’re not going to say ‘we’re going to win this’,” he said.

“We’re going to concentrate on our week-to-week performance and if we do that we can one or two and guarantee a home semi-final.
“Ultimately if you’re not improving week to week, long term, it’s not going to do your team any good.”

Dylan Hartley's Northampton Saints are in action live on BT Sport this Friday as Harlequins make the trip to Franklin's Gardens. If you're not already a subscriber, click here find out how we can get you set up in just 15 minutes.

Cipriani was taking part in the Jeep Wrangler Trick Shot Challenge. Learn the skills to carry out your own challenge here:  www.jeep.co.uk/news/trickshot

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