Lions leave Best pick to last
Rory Best is a British & Irish Lion after all. Yesterday he jetted off with the tourists en route to Australia via Hong Kong.
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Omitted in 2009 and, more controversially, four weeks ago, finally his call-up papers arrived on Sunday in the aftermath of disgraced Northampton Saints and England hooker Dylan Hartley's 11-week ban after getting himself sent off for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes in Saturday's Aviva Premiership play-off defeat by Leicester Tigers.
His unavailability created a vacancy for a third hooker and this time Lions coach Warren Gatland did what most people believe he ought to have done a month ago by including Best.
Twice before the player has known heartache at the hands of the Lions. Four years ago, when Ireland colleague and Munster rival Jerry Flannery withdrew from the South Africa tour with an arm fracture suffered in training, then-head coach Ian McGeehan surprised everybody by summoning Scotland's Ross Ford rather than Best as the replacement.
As recently as April 30, he suffered an even more crushing blow when Warren Gatland omitted him, instead opting for Hartley, Leicester Tigers' Tom Youngs and Ospreys' Richard Hibbard.
The response in Ulster was one of disbelief. While cases could be made for Youngs, the Aviva Premiership Player of the Season, and Hibbard, who had an outstanding Six Nations campaign for Wales, the 2013 champions, Hartley's inclusion ahead of Best was a particularly controversial call from day one, primarily in view of his infamous indiscipline.
The New Zealander-turned-Englishman has an unsavoury past. In 2007 he was banned for six months for eye-gouging against Wasps. He was suspended twice in 2012 – eight weeks for biting Stephen Ferris in England's victory over Ireland at Twickenham in March, and for two weeks – a surprisingly lenient punishment – last December, ironically for punching Best in Northampton's 25-6 drubbing by Ulster in their pre-Christmas Heineken Cup clash at Franklin's Gardens.
In addition, he had been warned about his language. On Sunday, England coach Stuart Lancaster said: "I'm sure he's regretting it now. He's got a ban so he's got to serve that now and miss what would have been the highlight of his career."
Having been disappointed on those previous occasions by the Lions, it was wholly understandable that Best was taking nothing for granted this time. Following Saturday evening's RaboDirect PRO12 final defeat by Leinster the Ulster favourite made it very plain that he would not be answering any questions on a possible call-up.
Three attempts to coax a response to developments at Twickenham where Hartley had made history – for all the wrong reasons by becoming the first man ever to be sent off in English club rugby's end-of-season showpiece – ended in failure.
Asked if he expected to be changing his plans next week, Best – who was to have captained Ireland on their north America tour – initially straight-batted by replying: "At the minute I'm focusing on this game (Ulster v Leinster). If anything comes out tomorrow, whatever."
A second questioner was rebuffed in similar fashion when Best was asked if he had anything to say on the changed situation arising from Hartley's dismissal.
"No. I'm talking about Leinster-Ulster," was his reply.
A third attempt, beginning with the words, "If you were to be called up ... ." drew a noticeably more terse response.
"I don't want to talk about it," Best said, with a look which made it pretty clear that any further efforts to get him to bare his soul would be a complete waste of time.
While all of that was going on, the fact that the Lions were assembling in readiness for yesterday's departure meant there was no time to waste in dealing with the matter.
The Rugby Football Union acted promptly in confirming that there would be a next-day hearing by a Disciplinary Committee, chaired by Judge Jeff Blackett, to examine the case against Hartley who was shown a red card for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes a on the stroke of half-time in Northampton's 37-17 defeat.
A post-match statement by the RFU confirmed the reason for the red card being brandished. It read: "Hartley was sent off for alleged verbal abuse of a match official contrary to Law 10(4)(s)."
The Lions duly informed Press Association Sport that in the event of Hartley being unavailable for the second match of the Lions' tour – against Western Force on Wednesday, June 5 – he would forfeit his place.
Given those circumstances and knowing that the minimum ban for swearing at officials is a ban of six weeks, Hartley was equally quick off the mark via Northampton's Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder, who acted as his spokesman in insisting the hooker's comments had been directed at Leicester hooker Youngs, not at the referee.
Stressing that Hartley's version of events was backed up by a number of other players, Mallinder told journalists: "I asked Dylan at half-time and I've just asked him again 'What happened? What did you say?' He said he was talking to Tom Youngs.
"If you talk like that to a player I wouldn't expect anything to happen. Clearly, Wayne Barnes has believed Dylan has spoken to him. I support Dylan. He is my captain. If he says he wasn't speaking to the referee and he was speaking to a player on the floor I can only support what he says.
"We will support Dylan. He said that a number of senior players that were around the ball agreed with Dylan that he was looking down and speaking to Tom Youngs."
On Sunday, though, that defence was rejected out of hand by members of the disciplinary committee who, rather than giving Hartley the minimum suspension, instead handed him one of 11-weeks duration.
The visual evidence confirmed he had been looking at the referee, not at Youngs. Blackett – the most experienced of the RFU judges – stressed that the referee's words were that he was "absolutely positive and 100% certain" that the abuse had been directed against him,
He also added that the use of the word 'cheat' in addition to the provocative language called into question the referee's integrity, something he denounced as "contrary to the core values of rugby".
Hartley's loss is Best's deserved and overdue gain. The 2013 Lions will benefit handsomely, too.