Dylan Hartley, one of England’s top players at Murrayfield last weekend, is enjoying his international resurgence, acutely aware of how quickly shifting sands can disturb a career.
Hartley’s line-out masterclass in the 20-0 RBS Six Nations defeat of Scotland on Saturday is a source of pride, as is the controlled aggression that has aided his ascent to world-class status.
But flirting with disaster has been a hallmark of the Northampton captain’s career and his disciplinary record has left him in last- chance saloon.
Add in the competition supplied by Tom Youngs, who started last autumn’s QBE Internationals as England’s first-choice hooker, and Hartley knows better than most how rapidly fortunes can change.
“I’ve been in enough situations to know you’re only as good as your last game,” he said.
“You have to keep performing and stay on your toes, but you do enjoy the ups. I thought if I got back here I’d enjoy it and almost cherish it because you’re one game away from being on the other side of the headlines.
“I’ve been there, so I’m just enjoying it and I don’t mean enjoy it as in a jolly. I mean every time I pull on that shirt and step into this environment is special as when you’re not in it, are injured or on the bench, you miss it.
“Three games ago I was on the bench. Three games ago I was on the road to redemption from the summer. I was on a chance from [head coach] Stuart Lancaster. A lot of people forget that and they get caught up on the here and now. . . 20 line-outs hits against Scotland or whatever. But three games ago I was on the bench, so I’ll enjoy it while I’m here.”
It will take something special to dislodge Hartley from the starting XV and, on present form, Youngs is a distant second. An immaculate line-out performance at Murrayfield that saw Hartley defy dreadful conditions to nail all 20 of his throws has made him indispensable.
For all the management’s attempts to share the blame around the pack for the set-piece deterioration that accompanied Youngs’ arrival on the pitch, they failed to mask his inferiority in this department.
Hartley, who was sent off during last season’s Aviva Premiership final for allegedly swearing at the referee and was banned, remains grounded, however.
“As soon as I sit back and say ‘aah, done it’, the next I know I play a bad game and Tom’s back in the team,” Hartley said. “I always said everyone has their time in the sun. Tom was in great form last year and sometimes you have to wait for an opportunity.That’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s pleasing that they weren’t empty words, that it came back right for me.
“But I’m aware that Tom’s very resilient and he’s not going to back down, that he’s going to be coming back. I’m sure he’s got some sort of masterplan to get back in the team.”
England’s Six Nations campaign resumes against Ireland at Twickenham in a week and Hartley hopes to erase memories of the 30-22 loss to New Zealand. He said: “We played so well against the All Blacks, we showed such great character to get back into the game, but to end the [Autumn] series on a loss was annoying.
“This is my chance to put the good feeling back in Twickenham. It’s exciting.”