With the countdown now officially on towards this Saturday’s Exeter vs Wasps Gallagher Premiership final, Dylan Hartley has revisited his nightmare experience of the English league showpiece, getting sent off in 2013 for allegedly swearing at referee Wayne Barnes while playing for Northampton. 

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The green light was given on Wednesday for the 2020 Exeter-Wasps decider after the Coventry-based club came through the latest round of coronavirus testing unscathed, and the impending match-up has had former England and Northampton skipper Hartley reflecting on what happened to him seven years ago in the showpiece. 

Not only did his moment of madness end his final against Leicester, who went on to win, but the subsequent ban also cost Hartley his place on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. While that tour damage was irreparable, the hooker failing to get selected for the 2017 tour to New Zealand, Hartley came back in 2014 to win the Premiership title with Northampton. 

Memories of the red card linger, however, Hartley even admitting on the latest episode of the RugbyPass Offload show that he would have been confident of contesting the sending-off at the disciplinary hearing but felt it was best for the game that he took the eleven-week ban and got on with life.   

“When he [Barnes] sent me off it was a moment of disbelief actually,” said Hartley on the show to co-star Simon Zebo and host Christina Mahon. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. It almost went like slow motion, like the whole world was ending. 

“Yellow cards are alright because you just jog off and know you’re going to come back on hopefully, so the quicker you actually get off for a yellow card, the time starts so you get off the field sharp. But red cards, it’s the slowest walk of your life. I knew the impact that that had. It was Northampton’s first-ever final in the Premiership, it was against our rivals Leicester. That season had been perfect for us, we were flying. 

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“I let down not only the team but the town and then personally I’d been to the Lions camp the week before and would have done the messy Monday but it was a Sunday, had all that kit, even the squad photo and then they photoshopped Rory Best’s head. 

“I wasn’t even thinking about that. It was just pure disbelief if I’m honest. It was a pretty long walk of shame. I went straight to the changing rooms and had a moment with myself… I thought the easy thing to do here is to sit in. I felt like getting a taxi home, out the fire escape kind of thing. 

“But I thought the right thing was to front up, sit on the bench full well knowing I’m going to have every camera poked in my face, all the photographers were there, and then at the end of the game I could have easily shied away from not getting a losers’ medal and confronting my teammates but I thought I have got to front up here. 

“It was difficult but I did the right thing. I did the wrong thing to get sent off but I did the right thing in my mind as a teammate and as a bloke to front up and get on with it. It wasn’t easy. 

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“There is a piece in the book as well that there was an avenue to challenge the decision but being the grubby kid that I was it wasn’t the situation to do it in. The Lions tour had already started, I wasn’t really going to catch up on that tour. I rang Warren Gatland and said just crack on without me. I was going to take what was given. 

“You have got to remember, me challenging the ref, the ref’s employed by the RFU, disciplinary is the RFU. There was actually a moment there where Wayne Barnes said he saw me call him a f***in’ cheat. 

“If you freeze-frame when the words are muttered – I did say those words but not aimed at him – he is actually looking the other way. If it went to Crown Court, if this was like an actual serious case in the court of law, I could have got that thrown in the bin but I just thought it’s too big a story.

“I’d played a lot of rugby that season and if anything whenever I got suspended I saw it as like a sabbatical and a chance to rest my body. I went to Los Angeles and had a nice holiday. I watched the Lions tour and I enjoyed all that.”

– To listen to RugbyPass Offload on iTunes, click here

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