Controversial Dylan Hartley is still in the running to captain Lions, says rival Rory Best
Ulster's Ireland skipper Rory Best insists that Dylan Hartley still has plenty of time to show his credentials to lead this summer's Lions tour to New Zealand.
Hartley, who has been suspended for 60 weeks of his career thanks to a lengthy rap sheet, received a six-week ban for striking Leinster's Sean O'Brien in December, with England coach Eddie Jones saying his controversial captain must prove his fitness ahead of the Six Nations.
And despite Best and Wales' Alun Wyn Jones now being the favourites to be chosen by Warren Gatland to skipper against the All Blacks, Best believes there is no reason to assume Hartley is out of the mix.
"Dylan's not injured, so he has an opportunity to get a good block of training done without getting beaten up every week in a match situation," said Best.
"So from that side of things, when you get to March and the shake-up in the Six Nations for the last two rounds of that, you'd be going a long way to say that his ban from December would be dictating events."
Despite a controversial career - including one ban for scuffling with Best himself during an Ulster v Northampton clash - Hartley had displayed an exemplary disciplinary record since assuming the role of England captain from Chris Robshaw when Jones replaced Stuart Lancaster in the hotseat following the disastrous World Cup of 2015.
That quickly changed with his latest transgression, but he will have one Northampton game to prove his readiness for England's opener against France on February 4.
Even before attentions turned to this summer's tour, Best and Hartley's Lions fate has been inextricably linked.
The Poyntzpass man was seen as a frontrunner to tour Australia four years ago but, when Gatland named his party, was not among the three hookers.
The first ever Ulster Test centurion was handed a reprieve only when Hartley was banned for verbal abuse of a referee and missed the trip.
After the lesson of that initial disappointment, Best will not look too far ahead this time around.
"Something I probably learned four years ago the hard way is that if you start listening to people telling you that you are there or thereabouts, you forget about what's vitally important and that's what is right in front of you," said Best.
"Everyone is very well-meaning, but four years ago it was tough not being involved in the initial squad.
"Mentally it was very hard. If you start to look ahead to things like Lions squads now, you'll forget about the game this weekend.
"And if your form suffers you don't need to worry about the captaincy, because you're not going to be in the squad."
Tomorrow's clash with Bordeaux-Begles will likely be his last appearance for Ulster before April while Ireland are second favourites to lift their third Six Nations in four years.
For Best, both are more pressing than Lions selection.
"It's something I'm not really interested in talking about, I'm worried about performing to the best of my ability for Ulster and Ireland," he added. "And of course we're focused fully on Ulster until the end of January."