Sunday 30 April 2017

Rory Best backs Dylan Hartley to push Lions captaincy case on return from ban

Rory Best, right, and Dylan Hartley, left, are vying for the Lions captaincy
Rory Best, right, and Dylan Hartley, left, are vying for the Lions captaincy

Rory Best insists Dylan Hartley still has plenty of time to state a compelling case for the British and Irish Lions' captaincy.

Ireland captain Best believes Hartley's latest ban will not scupper his chances of leading the Lions in New Zealand this summer.

England skipper Hartley took his career suspensions tally to 60 weeks with the six-week ban for striking Leinster's Sean O'Brien, with boss Eddie Jones since challenging him to prove his fitness ahead of the RBS 6 Nations.

Ulster hooker Best has been tipped as among the front-runners to captain the 2017 Lions' vintage - but the 34-year-old has moved to downplay his own chances.

"Dylan's not injured, so he has an opportunity to get a good block of training done without getting beaten up every week in a match situation," Best told Press Association Sport.

"So from that side of things, when you get to March and the shake-up in the Six Nations for the last two rounds of that, you'd be going a long way to say that his ban from December would be dictating events."

Hartley was always a bold choice when Jones confirmed the Northampton front-rower as England captain in January 2016.

The combative hooker had lengthy suspensions on his rap-sheet for eye-gouging, biting, punching and elbowing when Jones named him skipper.

Hartley missed the 2013 Lions tour after a ban for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes in that year's Premiership final cost him his place in Australia.

Hartley then missed the 2015 World Cup after head-butting Test rival Jamie George - but produced a flawless disciplinary display as Jones' England side won 13 out of 13 in a stellar 2016.

The 30-year-old will have time for just one Northampton appearance before the Six Nations - in the Anglo-Welsh Cup against fierce local rivals Leicester on January 28.

England start their Six Nations title defence by hosting France at Twickenham on Saturday, February 4, with Hartley clearly battling for match sharpness.

Head coach Jones has even tasked the Northampton hooker with undergoing a rigorous fitness test ahead of that fast-looming France clash.

Best's fine form in captaining Ireland since Paul O'Connell's injury-enforced retirement has taken in the country's maiden win over the All Blacks and his own 100th cap.

The durable hooker remains reticent to discuss his own Lions chances however - whether captaincy or otherwise - after admitting to having had his fingers burned in 2013.

Best revealed head coach Warren Gatland's decision to overlook him initially in 2013 hit hard.

The Ulster front-rower did eventually make the tour following Hartley's suspension, but he remains intent on shutting out any Lions predictions this time around.

"Something I probably learned four years ago the hard way is that if you start listening to people telling you you are there and thereabouts, you forget about what's vitally important, and that's what is right in front of you," said Best.

"Everyone is very well-meaning when talking about things like the Lions, but four years ago it was tough not being involved in the initial squad.

"Mentally it was very hard. If you start to look ahead to things like Lions squads now, you'll forget about the game this weekend.

"And if your form suffers you don't need to worry about the captaincy, because you're not going to be in the squad.

"It's such a competitive thing. It's something I'm not really interested in talking about: I'm worried about performing to the best of my ability for Ulster and Ireland.

"And of course we're focused fully on Ulster until the end of January."

Press Association

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