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Rory to show Dylan who's best

By Niall Crozier

Rory Best is preparing quietly for another battle royal with England hooker Dylan Hartley, who is not.

Dylan and 'quiet' are strangers to one another.

Best knows what to expect, the rivals' most recent encounter having served as a reminder of just how 'competitive' the Northampton Saints captain can be.

That was on December 7 at Franklin's Gardens where Ulster hammered the Aviva Premiership outfit 25-6, earning themselves a maximum five Heineken Cup points.

To add insult to insult, Hartley ended up with a two-week ban after being cited for punching his opposite number who was helpless on the ground at the time and unable to defend himself.

That did nothing to endear Hartley to anyone on this side of the Irish Sea, for with him having been banned for eight weeks following last March's England-Ireland Six Nations clash in which he bit Stephen Ferris, already they had marked him down as one of the game's bad boys.

Before that, in 2007, Dylan had earned a six-months suspension for gouging, the most despicable offence in the game.

None of this will intimidate Best who, at 5ft 11in and 17st 4lb is as solid as a World War II pill box. And with 63 Test caps in his cupboard – the record for an Irish hooker – he has faced the hardest in the southern and northern hemispheres without flinching.

Hartley himself is a southern/northern hemisphere hybrid, for although he plays for England he is New Zealander. Born and raised in Rotorua, he qualifies for England only by dint of 'ancestry'.

It was whilst on holiday in Sussex one summer that he was introduced to England's age-grade system. Worcester Warriors Academy's Graham Smith persuaded him to come to England.

Typically, Hartley has been breathing fire in the past few days, though that may have something to do with the fact that last weekend he had to wait his turn to enter the fray from the bench, Tom Youngs having been chosen to start against Scotland.

The prospect of a head-to-head with Best on Sunday has seen the not-so-saintly Northampton player push harder than ever, not least because he knows Lions coach Warren Gatland will be watching closely to see how the battle between the two best hookers in the Home Countries unfolds.

"The Lions is like a big bonus isn't it? It's something to work for," Hartley said.

Not content with having stoked that fire, Hartley threw a shovelful of coal on another by adding: "We have a big chance with England as well. We'd all love to lift the trophy. That in itself is pretty exciting."

Quick; anyone smell burning?

"The Six Nations is your stage to perform," Hartley continued. "I understand that I've got seven weeks to give myself a good crack at it. I've got my head round that and I'm highly motivated."

Cue a change of tactics.

"I have played against Rory Best once this year for Northampton against Ulster. He is a key man in their team. They (Ireland) have got plenty of class throughout and he is key to their success up front."

Best is too wise and too grounded be distracted or conned by any such chit-chat. When you're going to war you brace yourself for what it's going to entail. That does not include exchanging fan-mail with the enemy.

England have warned Hartley that his indiscipline is a handicap to him and to the team. The hooker insists he can handle the heat of the Aviva Stadium this Sunday.

Reflecting on his past record he said: "The last one (ban) was down to frustration, the team not playing well, myself not playing well and not thinking and just reacting."

And to anyone who may be thinking about targeting him, he had a word of warning.

"That is short-sighted because as soon as you focus your energies on someone else, you are not concentrating on yourself."

One would imagine Best and company already know that, but hey, thanks for the advice, Dyl.

Best is more likely to be concentrating on trying to subject England to a defeat comparable to the 24-8 loss two years ago when their Grand Slam dream was shot to pieces.

"It was the intensity which stood out," is Hartley's recollection of 2011. I remember the first scrum of the game and we got rolled, they got a big shunt on and the crowd goes wild. I remember my first carry of the game and I got held in the choke tackle, ball turned over.

"If you look at the way they started the game against Wales at the weekend, they put a big emphasis on that. We need to front up emotionally. You need to be right in the head."

Indeed, Dylan, indeed.

Belfast Telegraph


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