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ANSWER TO OUR PARIAHS; SIX NATIONS RUGBY COUNTDOWN TO WEEKEND OF ACTION.

Byline: ALEX SPINK

WHEN they banned him for six months and labelled him a gouger Dylan Hartley knew he had two choices.

He could clean up his act - or kiss goodbye to his England career before it had started.

Less than three years later the 23-year-old will today be one of the first names on the team sheet when Martin Johnson picks his side to play Italy.

It will be the 16th consecutive game in which the Kiwi-born hooker with the fiery past has been asked to represent his adopted country.

The speed of Hartley's transformation from liability to asset has been remarkable. And he admits: "My ban was a massive turning point and a wake-up call.

"Had I not had it I might not be playing the game now. It gave me the chance to reflect on what I was doing and assess where it was taking me.

("I realised I was trying too hard to be noticed. All my energy was being spent playing the game in the wrong way."

It was only two seasons ago that he was given 26 weeks for gouging James Haskell - now his England team-mate - in a club match.

"I pulled at the player's head, not meaning to go near his eyes, but it was reckless and it was near his eyes," he later confessed. "I was wrong and I have got to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.

"I have got to eliminate any sniff of that from my game."

A year after that his suitability for international rugby was again called into question, this time by respected coach Eddie Jones following a club game at Saracens.

Yet Hartley made his England debut the following month and has not missed a game since. Moreover he is now Northampton captain.

Hartley's change from bad boy to happy hooker was achieved with the help of forensic psychiatrist Steve Peters.

"I used to play my rugby with high emotion, very animated, but I was a bit of a loose unit," he said.

"I had to stop getting in offthe-ball situations. What Steve taught me to do was to think with the logical part of my head, and channel my energy so I still tackle and run with the same energy that I used to put into trying to annoy someone."

There were also pearls of wisdom from Northampton coach and ex-England hooker Dorian West.

"Dorian told me: 'The game's hard enough on its own without trying to p*** people off and chase lost causes'," Hartley said.

"He told me to focus on the simple things - basically 'do scrums, throw into line-outs, anything else is a bonus'."

The upshot has been that of the 11 yellow cards shown to England players since his debut in November 2008 Hartley has not had one.

And ahead of what is always a fierce Anglo-Italian forward battle, he is determined to keep it that way.

He wouldn't claim to be the finished article.

But, a bit like the England team , he seems to be heading in the right direction.

CAPTION(S):

FLARING UP Hartley on Saturday (top) and being confronted by Phil Vickery after gouging on Haskell EYES ON THE PRIZE Hartley has reinvented himself after gouging
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 10, 2010
Words:539
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