'Rust' no worry for Hartley ahead of France clash
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: England captain Dylan Hartley has no worries about being "rusty" for the champions' Six Nations opener against France at Twickenham on Saturday even though it will be his first match for over a month.
The Northampton hooker, who last season captained England to a Grand Slam, was given a six-week ban after being sent off for striking Sean O'Brien during the Saints' defeat by Leinster on December 3.
But the 30-year-old Hartley, who has missed more than a year of his career through suspension, believes the gruelling training regime with England will ensure he is match-fit.
The 79-times capped Hartley even paid for his own room at England's expensive training base at a hotel southwest of London during "off weeks" so he can continue to work closely with the squad's conditioning coaches.
"We obviously train at a higher pace [than games] and we learnt we increased that in Portugal [during a recent England training camp] by 10 percent," said Hartley.
"I haven't been doing that for the last two weeks, I've been doing it for six weeks on a one-on-one basis. It's been brutal but it puts me in a good place. Knowing how hard we prepare gives the team confidence.
"There's no rust," added Hartley, named England captain when head coach Eddie Jones took charge after the 2015 World Cup.
As for his Pennyhill Park Hotel training sessions, Hartley added: "I had been driving down here a day a week - come in the night before to be up early and train.
"This place isn't cheap either and you have to pay for it yourself. I brought the missus and little one as well - she thought she was away for a spa visit," explained Hartley, whose game time since early December is a mere six minutes.
Injuries have disrupted England's preparations, especially in the pack with former captain Chris Robshaw, No.8 Billy Vunipola, lock George Kruis and prop Mako Vunipola all missing against France.
Back-row Robshaw has been ruled out of the entire Six Nations with a shoulder problem and Kruis's knee injury threatens the lock's participation in this season's edition.
But England will still be able to field an experienced second row of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes on Saturday, with Maro Itoje moving from lock to replace Robshaw at blindside flank.
"You guys [the media] got plenty of column inches out of Maro, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and James Haskell being injured last year but we seemed to do OK," said Hartley of an unbeaten 2016 that left England on a 14-match winning streak, with 13 of those victories under Jones.
"It's never about one person, it's all about the team and we have confidence in the team. Because Maro and Kruis are out of the second row, Courtney and Joe Launchbury are playing.
"Launchbury is one of our top guys. We're blessed with good depth and guys who are competitive."
For New Zealand-born Hartley, remaining "competitive" is all about constant improvement.
"What we did in the autumn, what we did in the Six Nations last year, is not going to be good enough to win this game this weekend," he warned.
"We're striving to be better. I say this every week but it’s the truth, we never look back."