When Eddie Jones recoiled in horror as Dylan Hartley trudged off against Leinster, banished once again for an act of lunatic transgression against an Irish opponent, it was presumed that his chances of captaining the Lions along with England in 2017 had vanished. But then again, Hartley appears to have teflon rather than marrow in his bones, so he survived. Again.
Jones proved that he is on the side of the heavy battalions rather than the best shots, so Hartley hung onto the England captaincy this year, having served a ban that expired early enough to allow him compete in this year's Six Nations.
Gatland, too, admitted that Hartley's disciplinary record would not harm his chances of earning the chief Lions gig. Speaking a month ago, just before the Six Nations, Gatland said this:
If Dylan Hartley leads England to another Grand Slam that could sway it. Dylan has done a great job with his leadership with England. The sending-off looked like frustration to me. But Dylan has to contend with pressure, too, that of Jamie George pushing for his place.
Hartley has drifted behind Alun Wyn Jones, Rory Best, Conor Murray, and Owen Farrell in the bookies' forecast for the Lions captain but comments like these means that Hartley is not too far from Gatland's mind.
The main argument against putting Hartley in a pressure-cooker was the likelihood of a reaction akin to the forearm smash inflicted upon Sean O'Brien; that, regardless of his qualities, Hartley has a self-destruct button, and is profligate with time spent jabbing it.
If the previous argument against a Hartley captaincy was based on the fact you 'couldn't trust him to stay on the field', this weekend furnished a compelling supporting point: you can't trust him when he is on the field, either.
Leadership is usually an elusive concept, and difficult to assess when it is before you. Instead, it is always noticed and pondered in absence: teams only look to be well led when they are leaderless. At Twickenham yesterday, Hartley managed to transcend this fact, and give what will be looked back as a textbook guide to bad leadership.
Italy came close to causing a shock at Twickenham, but even in defeat, they roughly disabused England of the growing aura of invincibility surrounding them. Rarely has a side on a 17-game winning streak seemed so beatable.
They did so by deploying tactics that were more unorthodox than innovative: their passivity at ruck time meant that no offside line was formed, allowing Italian defenders to smother England's first receiver, and prevent the ball from being tossed out wide. It was smart by O'Shea, but it wasn't revolutionary: Australia used it to exploit Ireland and allow David Pocock score an intercept try in the November internationals, while Ronan O'Gara told RTE viewers that Clermont occasionally use it in the Top 14.
England, however, were befuddled. Matt Dawson went all Brexit, using the exploits of foreigners on English shores as an excuse to argue for change at bureaucratic level:
Well done Italy on ruining this international. Now World Rugby have to change the laws because of your inability to compete at this level. 😡
— Matt Dawson (@matt9dawson) February 26, 2017
The English players were befuddled, and, extraordinarily, they were unable to think for themselves on the field, and adjust themselves. For the squad not to realise they should form a maul or pick-and-drive their way forward is tunnel vision on a profound level. Half-time consultation quickly fixed the problem, and from there England picked up what they needed in a four-try, 36-15 win that was more eeked out than earned.
While England toiled in confusion, Hartley suffered the ignominy of asking referee Roman Poite to explain the laws of the game to him. Here's a video of the England captain, along with James Haskell, asking the referee to explain what a ruck is.
For Hartley to panic in a situation like this and have the basic laws of the sport elude him - in an intense game but nothing on the scale of the industry-standard furnaces the All Blacks will blast in the summer - is extraordinary, and conclusive proof that he is not the man to captain the Lions.
There's a separate argument to be made that Hartley should not be the starting hooker this summer, given that he is under pressure for his spot in England's front row. Hartley was poor, missing one of his eleven tackles before making way in the 55th minute for Jamie George. The replacement was far more influential, and had a hand in England's critical fourth-try, collecting a looping Ford pass to offload to Jack Nowell, who dived into the corner ten minutes from time.
Hartley is under pressure for his place against Scotland, and those headlines will dominate the English rugby press over the next couple of weeks. The Lions, however, should take a lesson from this weekend. The All Blacks have shown in the past a willingness to target the Lions captain, and on this weekend's evidence, Hartley is easily rattled.