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23rd Feb 2024

Former England captain compares Dan Sheehan to All Blacks star Dane Coles

Patrick McCarry

“He’s just thriving. It’s quite clear to see.”

It is too early to be poring over the record books just yet but a try (or two) against Wales and we may see Dan Sheehan feature in a lot more Six Nations headlines and stories. The championship record try-scoring tally is eight tries in four ‘Five Nations’ games, 110 years ago. Sheehan has made a very fast start, though.

As soon as I finish up my chat with Dylan Hartley, I double-check his career statistics and realise I should not have doubted him.

97 Test matches for England, four tries. It is a perfectly reasonable return for a hooker but looks positively paltry in modern-day rugby when the men in No.2 jerseys are racking up the tries. Quick-tap penalties from the five-metre line and rolling mauls have made hookers the players vying with wingers for match-ball souvenirs.

Tom Stewart scored 17 tries in 19 games, last season, for Ulster while Johnny Matthews is the URC’s top try-scorer, this season, with 10 for Glasgow. Dan Sheehan [33 tries in 55 Leinster games] is leading try-scorer after two games of the 2024 Six Nations – three, and counting.

“He’s doing well,” says Hartley. “He’s flying the flag for the front row.

“I’ve scored four [Test] tries my whole bloody career. That’s truth, actually. I don’t think Sheehan and Rónan Kelleher are rewriting the rules for the modern-day hooker, though. There have been plenty of guys before, like Sean Cronin. There was a guy that was very dynamic in the position.

“And you have someone like Dane Coles. I’d compare Dan Sheehan to someone like Dane Coles. The difference you’re seeing is that when you put a quality player like that into a high-performing team that is going like clock-work, that is where you can really thrive.

“I remember watching, Dane Coles when he was playing for the All Blacks and he was running in tries from 60 metres out, doing things off the back of Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter and their breaks. When it’s all working around you, players like that can really step up to that 10 out of 10, world-class performance.

“Whereas if Dan Sheehan was playing in a struggling side, you probably wouldn’t see him thrive like he does. So, I think it’s a combination of the team, helping him flourish as a player, as well.

“For Irish rugby, and certainly no disrespect to those that have gone before him, but maybe he’s a breath of fresh air, something a little bit different.”

Dane Coles is a genuine All Blacks legend, having played 90 Tests for New Zealand, including a key role in the 2015 World Cup win. He also crossed the white-wash 21 times for his country. He was also quite an out-spoken player in Test matches, as opposition fans and players frequently discovered, over the years.

Hartley, who was speaking with us on behalf of Instant Casino, still feels there is a place in top-level rugby for the hookers that get through the basics well and are strong in areas such as scrum, lineout and around the breakdown.

“You also have current guys like Jamie George, who can play a game similar to Dan Sheehan, and Peato Mauvaka,” the former England captain told us.

“You’re seeing a lot more of those mobile, dynamic hookers than, respectfully, the likes of myself or a Rory Best. I feel sorry for Rory now as I’ve put him in the same category as me. He’s better than me.

“We were these guys doing good set-piece stuff, which is what you used to get picked on – it was the only thing I got picked on, if I’m honest! But you have hookers who can bring all these extra things and it is like having an extra back-rower.

“You know, though, there’s no right or wrong. I don’t think rugby’s set on that path for the hooker to always be like that. You look at what South Africa do. You look at both of their hookers [Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx]. Both big guys, and it just shows there’s no right or wrong way to play the game.

“It depends on how your team wants you to play and what the coaches want – the balance they want, as well. But, man, if you’ve got a team playing like Ireland, and you’ve got Dan Sheehan within that… I mean, he’s just thriving. It’s quite clear to see.”

All Blacks legend Dane Coles. (Credit: Getty)

Dylan Hartley on Netflix rugby documentary

The Six Nations championship often brings the casual fan back to rugby for a couple of months, with many picking up the baton of instant experts. There are even more casual supporters set to tune in, this season, thanks to the Netflix documentary, Full Contact.

“Loads of people have been very complimentary about the documentary and it’s been a great tool to get more eyes on rugby, and show the personalities behind the game.

“But once you’ve been in those environments, you know… I caught up with a very close friend this week who’s been at the tip of the spear for a long time with England. And we both looked sideways at each other and said, ‘They’ve shown us loads but they haven’t shown us anything’.

“Look, if I was Steve Borthwick or Andy Farrell, I wouldn’t want cameras around, because rugby’s pretty simple, right? There’s certain themes and terminologies that people focus on, and I wouldn’t want to be giving away your IP, in a way.

“So, I feel Netflix gave us a great look into some great characters in the game, but in terms of rugby, and the reality of it, we still didn’t see what it was. It’s really hard to explain too much of the tactical stuff or what this and that means  It focused heavily on the physicality. There’s a lot of swearing, a lot of blood and a lot of sound effects.

“It was great to see some of the personalities, up close and personal. That’s what draws people to the game. A casual fan will sit down, watch that and go, ‘Oh, I know that guy now’, and will then watch the game the following week and feel they know some of the personalities in the game, which is quite cool.”

As much as Hartley acknowledges those positives, he was like many that are already invested in the sport.

“I was thinking, you know, ‘Come on, give us a little bit more, tell us what it’s really like, and show us what it’s really like’.

“I pinched myself and thought myself lucky that these cameras weren’t in my face as a player and especially as a captain. You almost would have to be this orator, too, with this pressure to speak in front of the cameras, in these team huddles.

“I feel for the guys, you know? The changing room used to be a sacred, a real safe place and it’s now like… all eyes on you the whole time.

“You’ve gotta be a rugby player, now, and be like a TV personality, too, almost. It is crazy, man. It’s crazy.”

HOUSE OF RUGBY, WITH LINDSAY PEAT & PAT MCCARRY

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