Belfast Telegraph

Rory Best in pole position to lead Lions as Hartley faces big ban

By Jonathan Bradley

If Warren Gatland is to choose his British and Irish Lions captain for the summer tour to New Zealand on the basis of the Six Nations, then Dylan Hartley faces an anxious wait.

The England skipper will find out tomorrow or Wednesday how long a ban he will face for the red card he picked up for Northampton against Leinster on Friday.

The combustible hooker, who has spent 54 weeks of his career suspended, was sent off just six minutes after coming on for a swinging arm aimed at Irish international Sean O’Brien.

The low end for such an offence is six weeks but Hartley of course, who missed the last Lions tour through a suspension for verbally abusing a referee, has a lengthy rap sheet and a longer ban could run into the Six Nations.

One of Ulster’s most recent Lions, Stephen Ferris, was working as a Sky Sports pundit throughout this Champions Cup weekend and sees no way Hartley can now skipper the touring party.

“I’m not sure he can be Lions captain if he is not going to play too many games for England in the Six Nations,” said the man who was once on the end of Hartley’s unpredictable fuse, having been bitten on the finger during an Ireland versus England clash.

“It depends how many weeks he is going to get. His track record, obviously, he is not going to get entry level cut to three.

“The amount of press there has been regarding high tackles, high shots, especially Ireland versus New Zealand, every time you picked up a paper there seemed to be a high shot mentioned.

“He could get 10 weeks. If he’s not going to play for England, how can he captain the Lions?”

And if it was a bad weekend for one captaincy hopeful, Rory Best’s candidacy seems to only go from strength to strength.

After his history making November as Ireland skipper — Best captained the side to a first win over the All Blacks while racking up a century of caps — the 34-year-old was back leading his province to a noteworthy victory over French heavy hitters Clermont.

Speaking before the weekend’s action, both good and bad, Gatland praised the continued evolution of Best who he left behind for the 2013 tour only to call him up as a late replacement, ironically after Hartley’s ban.

“The biggest thing as a player or a coach is how you handle adversity, how you learn from the past and from disappointments,” he said. “He has definitely done that so I respect him as a person on and off the field. He has definitely impressed me.

“Nothing pleases me more than to sometimes be proven wrong, or to see someone respond. He is a big part of why that Ireland team are going pretty well.

“He looks comfortable. We didn’t take him initially in 2013 because we felt his line-out throwing was not good enough but he’s improved enormously,” he added.

“He is scrummaging well, he is experienced and has grown into that leadership role.”

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