The restraint of England hooker Dylan Hartley is dominating the agenda as the clock ticks down to Friday’s eagerly-anticipated Six Nations opener in Cardiff.
Four years after questioning his temperament ahead of the biennial Millennium Stadium fixture, Wales head coach Warren Gatland heaped praise on the man who will wear England’s No 2 shirt in the Welsh capital on Friday night.
And at their base in Surrey, Hartley was a key question fired at England forwards coach Graham Rowntree as Stuart Lancaster’s side were coming to terms with the news that another player – prop David Wilson – will miss the game through injury.
Rowntree is to counsel Hartley on his discipline knowing the Northampton hooker will be targeted by Wales on Friday.
Hartley’s dismal disciplinary record has forced him to miss virtually an entire year of his career – his suspensions total 50 weeks for a range of offences including gouging and biting – and as recently as December he was sent off for use of the elbow against Leicester.
Having served the ensuing three-week ban, he was then dispatched to the sin-bin against Racing Metro in his comeback game for tackling on the ground and later revealed he had focused on his discipline in the build up to the match.
Four years ago Wales coach Gatland questioned Hartley’s temperament, asking whether he would “choke and crack under pressure”. Instead, the 28-year-old produced one of his finest performances as England prevailed 26-19.
Rowntree takes exception to Gatland singling out a player for his mind games, but he knows Hartley’s self-restraint will be tested at a hostile Millennium Stadium.
When asked if Hartley is under extra pressure on Friday night, Rowntree said: “Yes he is. Under pressure from himself as well and we have to manage that.
“It was interesting to hear his comments after the Racing Metro game when he said he prepared really well and yet he still got yellow-carded early doors. We will be speaking a lot this week about his clarity of thought going into this game, which is what we did four years ago when Gatland called him out.
“I don’t like it when coaches do that. I was there when Gatland apologised as well. On that occasion, Dylan was nigh on man of the match. I have every faith in him.
“Determination is what I see in Dylan’s eyes. He doesn’t go out there to be carded, he goes out there with clear jobs to do,” said Rowntree.
“He did it very well in the autumn series.
“He had 94 per cent lineout and was in the middle of all the good work in the set-piece.
“I need to make sure this week he is thinking about those things again – concentrating about the things he has to do for our team, not anything else.”
Rowntree’s comments were in response to Gatland’s about-turn on Hartley, with Lancaster’s opposite number saying: “I spoke to Dylan when we were at Twickenham, and we had a good chat about the Lions. I would have loved to have worked with him.
“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for him. He’s got an edge and is competitive, and he has that will to win.
“I had a few words about him a number of years ago, and he shoved them back in my face and responded brilliantly with a fantastic performance (against Wales).
“As a coach, you have got to admire and respect that. He is a hard competitor, a winner and uncompromising.”
George North is back on the wing for Wales as they named their team four days before the game and 48 hours ahead of England. One other change sees Gloucester hooker Richard Hibbard return instead of Scott Baldwin.
There are 11 starting line-up survivors from two years ago when Wales put England to the sword, with the likes of skipper Sam Warburton, who wins his 50th cap, North, Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert – a two-try star of that game – all back for more.
Meanwhile, Dan Cole is set to profit from Wilson being ruled out with a neck problem, with the former back swiftly having recovered from a foot injury.