Gatland hails Best in blow to Hartley
Ireland captain emerges as favourite for Lions honour Farrell backed for England captaincy if hooker banned
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