Gat­land hails Best in blow to Hart­ley

Ire­land cap­tain emerges as favourite for Lions honour Far­rell backed for Eng­land cap­taincy if hooker banned

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Sir Ian McGeechan By Gavin Mairs RUGBY NEWS CORRESPONDENT

Rory Best has emerged as the front run­ner for the cap­taincy of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions tour of New Zealand after War­ren Gat­land hailed the evo­lu­tion of Ire­land’s leader as the most im­pres­sive of all his ri­vals.

Gat­land’s ac­cla­ma­tion for Best came as one of the main con­tenders for the Lions job, Eng­land cap­tain Dy­lan Hart­ley, found him­self at the centre of fresh con­tro­versy. Hart­ley, who was sent off for a swing­ing arm tackle to the head of Le­in­ster flanker Sean O’Brien dur­ing Northamp­ton’s de­feat on Fri­day, will ap­pear be­fore a Euro­pean Pro­fes­sional Club Rugby hear­ing next week.

The 30-year-old, who has served 54 weeks of sus­pen­sions in his ca­reer, could face an­other lengthy ban that may see him miss Eng­land’s Six Na­tions opener against France on Feb 4.

While the in­ci­dent raised a fresh ques­tion mark about Hart­ley’s tem­per­a­ment as a leader, Gat­land had rich praise for Best, who cap­tained Ul­ster to a bonus-point vic­tory over French Top 14 side Cler­mont Au­vergne at Raven­hill yes­ter­day.

Best had gone into the au­tumn cam­paign as the outsider for next year’s Lions job given the com­pe­ti­tion from Hart­ley, 2013 cap­tain Sam War­bur­ton and Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones.

But Gat­land, who left Best out of his orig­i­nal squad for the Aus­tralia tour, ad­mit­ted the Ire­land hooker had since proved him wrong and sin­gled out his lead­er­ship since tak­ing over from Paul O’Con­nell as Ire­land cap­tain.

Best has led Ire­land to a tri­umvi­rate of vic­to­ries against South Africa, New Zealand and Aus­tralia this year, the first side to do so since Eng­land’s 2003 World Cup win­ners.

“There is no doubt Rory Best has done a re­ally good job,” said Gat­land. “He looks com­fort­able. We didn’t take him ini­tially in 2013 [to Aus­tralia] be­cause we felt his line-out throw­ing was not good enough. He has ob­vi­ously im­proved enor­mously.

“He is scrum­mag­ing well, he is ex­pe­ri­enced. He has grown into that lead­er­ship role. There is a lot to ad­mire about Rory Best. I go back to a cou­ple of years ago when Ul­ster went over to Northamp­ton and he gave Dy­lan Hart­ley a bit of a les­son in for­ward play and hook­ing that day. It was an­other level.”

Hart­ley, mean­while, faces fur­ther scru­tiny about his tem­per­a­ment after a year of im­pec­ca­ble be­hav­iour as Eng­land cap­tain un­der Ed­die Jones. An eight week ban would rule Hart­ley out of the start of the Six Na­tions and Sara­cens direc­tor of rugby Mark McCall said last night that Owen Far­rell is ready to take on the role if Jones de­cides – or is forced – to re­place him.

“Owen is ready,” said McCall after Sara­cens’ 50-3 Cham­pi­ons Cup win over Sale. “He’s one of those play­ers who leads in ev­ery way be­cause he leads from the front. He leads through his ac­tions but also through his mes­sages and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the team.”

Mean­while, The Sun­day Tele­graph un­der­stands that Gat­land hopes to add Ja­son O’Hal­lo­ran, a for­mer All Black centre and cur­rent Scot­land backs coach, to the coach­ing team that was an­nounced in Dublin on Wed­nes­day.

O’Hal­lo­ran, the for­mer Hur­ri­canes centre who won one cap for the All Blacks against Italy in 2000, has been iden­ti­fied as the sec­ond at­tack coach to work along­side backs coach Rob How­ley, who was un­veiled along­side Andy Far­rell (de­fence) and Steve Borth­wick (for­wards) as Gat­land’s as­sis­tants.

The Lions, how­ever, have yet to se­cure his re­lease from the Scot­tish Rugby Union, spark­ing con­cerns that the 43-year-old will be pre­vented from join­ing the coach­ing team after Gat­land was blocked from ap­point­ing Gre­gor Townsend, the in­com­ing Scot­land head coach, to his sup­port staff.

It is also un­der­stood the Lions are close to agree­ing a tour fee for the play­ers that will see each squad mem­ber re­ceive around £65,000 each for the 10-match tour, with a bonus each of £25,000 if they achieve a Test se­ries vic­tory over New Zealand.

Mean­while, for­mer Eng­land fly-half Alex King is poised to join the Wales coach­ing team on a short-term con­tract as at­tack coach for the Six Na­tions.

D ylan Hart­ley’s rash, swing­ing arm on Sean O’Brien in Northamp­ton’s de­feat by Le­in­ster on Fri­day re­opens dis­cus­sions on his dis­ci­pline in the con­text of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions, but it is im­por­tant to keep things in per­spec­tive. It is easy to over-re­act. This was not a punch, or an eye-gouge, or swear­ing at the ref­eree. It was not a case of the ‘red mist’ de­scend­ing as it used to for Hart­ley. It was a poor­ly­timed tackle for which he must take re­spon­si­bil­ity.

A year ago Hart­ley might have got away with a yel­low card, or even noth­ing at all. But with the new di­rec­tives, any­thing near the neck is go­ing to land you in trou­ble, whether in­ten­tional or not. We saw that with El­liot Daly in the Eng­land v Ar­gentina game a few weeks ago. That was not in­ten­tional ei­ther. Is Hart­ley still in con­tention for Lions’ cap­taincy? In my book, yes. He will be very dis­ap­pointed with his care­less­ness but, for me, it will be a timely re­minder for him to keep the dis­ci­pline he has shown dur­ing the last 12 months with­out los­ing the com­pet­i­tive edge that is so valu­able in his game. It was the main rea­son I had him as No 1 choice for Eng­land 12 months ago. Would New Zealand try to ex­ploit it? Of course, but when you know that, it be­comes a pos­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion in its own way. I am sure War­ren Gat­land will have a con­ver­sa­tion with him, but ul­ti­mately it is the re­la­tion­ship and trust that needs to ex­ist be­tween coach and cap­tain that will de­ter­mine the choice. That is a very per­sonal choice that only the head coach can make.

War­ren will have three or four names in mind at the mo­ment and I am sure he will have the likes of Rory Best, Sam War­bur­ton and Alun Wyn Jones to con­sider.

The cap­tain is the im­por­tant link, the con­duit be­tween coaches and play­ers once the tour is un­der way.

Un­til then, the im­por­tant thing is get­ting the coach­ing bal­ance right and War­ren has ob­vi­ously made some ap­point­ments on that front this week. I think he has cho­sen well. In Rob How­ley and Andy Far­rell he has that con­ti­nu­ity from pre­vi­ous tours. And in Steve Borth­wick he has some fresh eyes. It’s a nice bal­ance. I ex­pect he will add a cou­ple more. Neil Jenk­ins as kick­ing coach per­haps. Maybe a scrum coach, too, al­though as a for­mer hooker him­self that is War­ren’s forte.

It is im­por­tant not to have too many voices. You do not want to con­fuse things. The big­gest les­son I learned from Clive Wood­ward’s 2005 tour – when the coach­ing and play­ing squads were split in two and I was do­ing the mid­week games – was that play­ers need tac­ti­cal clar­ity. Hav­ing sep­a­rate Test and mid­week teams was di­vi­sive and put bar­ri­ers up. All the play­ers on the tour need to feel they are get­ting a fair crack of the whip and have a chance of play­ing for the Test team.

As coaches, it is best to keep an open mind and have the con­fi­dence to se­lect from what you see in the pro­vin­cial games and in train­ing.

I do not blame Clive, in­ci­den­tally. That sort of ap­proach prob­a­bly had to be tried after the game turned pro­fes­sional and grew as fast as it did. The Lions tours sud­denly went to an­other level in terms of scale. I can re­mem­ber when it used to just be coach and cap­tain.

Clive had had huge suc­cess with his way of do­ings things with Eng­land in 2003 and it prob­a­bly needed to be tried. But it also high­lighted the unique chal­lenge of the Lions. With that many play­ers and coaches of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties, com­ing to­gether for such a short pe­riod, clar­ity is paramount. You can­not have mixed mes­sages. When you play New Zealand, the best in the world, that ne­ces­sity is only ex­ag­ger­ated.

In 2009 we went right back to the 1997 tem­plate. Ob­vi­ously the whole thing was on a much big­ger level than it had been 12 years be­fore, both com­mer­cially and in terms of play­ing and staff num­bers, but at its core it was just the same. You need to have that con­ti­nu­ity of think­ing.

This is why it is so im­por­tant the coaches are all on the same page and the prepa­ra­tion for that starts now. The next four months, up un­til the end of the Six Na­tions, are ab­so­lutely cru­cial. War­ren will de­cide tac­ti­cally the type of game he wants to play against the All Blacks and ev­ery­thing will flow from there. The coaches will be look­ing for a spe­cific type of player over the next few weeks and dur­ing the Six Na­tions. It prob­a­bly helps that Ire­land have just shown them ex­actly how to rat­tle the cage of the best team in the world.

War­ren clearly gets on well with th­ese coaches, which is ab­so­lutely cru­cial be­cause, as I say, get­ting the right alchemy is all-im­por­tant. Play­ers look to the coach­ing group ini­tially.

I have been lucky enough to main­tain close re­la­tion­ships with all of my Lions coaches down the years. I can still re­call sit­ting up on an out­door ter­race area of our team ho­tel in Aus­tralia 1989; my­self and Roger Ut­t­ley, my as­sis­tant on my first Lions tour as head coach and a fel­low vet­eran of the mag­i­cal 1974 tour to South Africa, shar­ing a glass or two of wine with our man­ager, Clive Row­lands, talk­ing about this and that.

Won­der­ful mem­o­ries. He was a fan­tas­tic sound­ing board, Roger. Any is­sues or con­cerns we had we sorted ready for the next day’s train­ing, or any off-field is­sue Clive would say “leave it with me”, it was a great en­vi­ron­ment.

Dick Best in 1993, Jim Telfer in 1997 – as a fel­low Scot we shared a special con­nec­tion, of course – and with all of the guys in 2009, War­ren, Rob, Neil, Gra­ham Rown­tree and Shaun Ed­wards.

War­ren has made a good start with his first coach­ing ap­point­ments. The cap­taincy is­sue can wait for now.

A year ago, Hart­ley might have got away with a yel­low card, or noth­ing at all

March­ing or­ders: Hooker Dy­lan Hart­ley is sent off for Northamp­ton on Fri­day

See­ing red: Dy­lan Hart­ley makes con­tact with the head of Le­in­ster’s Sean O’Brien on Fri­day night; Lions head coach War­ren Gat­land (left)

War­ren Gat­land is un­likely to hold the hooker’s red card against him – but he has some strong al­ter­na­tives for tour of New Zealand

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