Thursday 22 March 2018

Rory Best: 'We won't waste our time trying to wind up Hartley'

Best expects controversial England star to stay ‘cool and calm’

Rory Best beats Dylan Hartley to the ball during the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium in 2013
Rory Best beats Dylan Hartley to the ball during the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium in 2013
Ireland players Willie Anderson, left, Jim McCoy and Michael Bradley, right, celebrate winning the Triple Crown. Five Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v England, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, March 1985. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

The last time England pitched up in Dublin with a Grand Slam in their sights four years back, they lost their heads.

Whether it was Chris Ashton losing his focus with a high hit on Jonathan Sexton that cost his side three points, or Ben Youngs getting binned for flinging the ball away to prevent a quick lineout, England were a rabble under Martin Johnson.

Unusually, Dylan Hartley didn't hog the headlines that day; there were plenty of his team-mates willing to do so in the ignominious 24-8 defeat that accelerated the decline of Johnson's ill-fated reign.

However, the Northampton hooker has had enough Groundhog Days in terms of indiscipline to fill a series of A3 rap sheets; the list of indiscretions would fill this space all of itself.

But his direct opponent this weekend, Rory Best, preparing to renew a rivalry that has also extended regularly into European club fare, expects the oft-time cartoon villain to be on his best behaviour.


"I actually think he is a very talented rugby player and probably what he brings is more than that," says the Ulster hooker, who has declared a clean bill of health despite playing against France a mere six days after being concussed against Italy.

"You look at that Northampton team when he plays and he really is at the heart of the club and he seems to be able to bring that into the game.

"There is no doubting his rugby ability and off the pitch I have no problem with him. You know that when he plays, he is uncompromising, will be physical, he brings an edge to the game and in that regard you know what to expect.

"It is going to be a tough day at the office when you are playing against him and you just have to prepare for that, make sure you are on your game, right on the edge."

Balance is vital on that edge. So when asked whether the England man can be coursed to invoke his recidivist temperamental meltdowns, Best turns the question around; Ireland, not their opponents, he suggests, could lose their focus with such an approach.

"I don't think you can get to him temperamentally," he demurs; Warren Gatland tried to publicly goad Hartley in 2011 and the gambit spectacularly backfired.

"A lot has been made about his temperament but I think when you play a game like that, sometimes it has strayed the wrong side for him," he says.

"But if you look at him he's a physical player who hits things hard, and off the pitch when you chat to him he's a great lad.

"You look at his lineout throwing - whenever he's physical around the pitch he's still able to be cool, calm and collected and throw the ball in and he's very accurate there.

"So if your game-plan is to go out and rattle him, I think you're worrying too much about external factors. I just want to make sure that my game is right. It will have to be because he's a quality player."

For his part, Hartley has conceded that he has - belatedly - been forced to change his approach.

Fifty-two years after another Dylan went caused a furore by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, this Dylan is determined to keep the noise down.

His head-banging days are over.

"All you need to do is go out there and execute, backed up by an intensity and sustained intensity, playing for 80 minutes," says the feisty hooker. "It is not head-banging stuff anymore.

"I used to get like that. But you learn what works, what doesn't work. Obviously certain things haven't worked for me before. The older I get the more I have got to know myself a bit better."

For all that Hartley has blown the fuse - from gouging to swearing and then some - ironically his 23-game Six Nations record is squeaky clean. Not one yellow card.

"That's a lovely stat," he smiles. "Did everyone get that! But you might have just given me the old commentator's curse!

"They said the other weekend I had the best lineout stats in the world, and I didn't throw one straight so I'm just going to pretend I didn't hear that!"

Perception, though, inevitably, trails in his wake.

"It's just something I've got to deal with. I understand perception is what it is, whenever I can I change that. . . but unfortunately it's hard to change. And every now and then I give them something to keep that perception alive. But, yeah, I like that stat."

That perception continues to dog him - he was carded on Champions Cup duty in January - yet he emerged unscathed from a raucous, intense occasion in Cardiff on the opening day of the championship when disciplined England ruthlessly dismantled Wales.

"I'm happy," he says. "I've tried to keep my head down and let my rugby do the talking. It has been a conscious decision by myself to try to go back to basics and let my rugby do the talking and I think I've done that quietly.

"Stuart (Lancaster) had a perfect opportunity to drop me but I think I've given him the reason to keep me here in the first two games.

"I didn't fear the drop. I know when I get it right I can do the business on the day. I don't think anyone on the field wants to get yellow cards. There's a fine line and they seem to find their way to me so I'm well aware of that before I take the field.

"I'm not an enforcer. Someone like Billy Vunipola is our enforcer. My set-piece is my first and foremost role and I think that's why Stuart has got me in the team."

Best has had his own issues to deal with in recent times - he played on for several moments despite being concussed against Italy before being withdrawn.

The Banbridge farmer once battled on with a broken forearm in combat, but such recklessness may lean towards the foolhardy, rather than the brave, despite his assertion that he has obeyed all the laws governing his return.

The law may be an ass but that, for now at least, remains beyond his control, although he concedes the public and private fears.

"If the symptoms occur or are lasting then that's when you have trouble," he says. "When you look at my incident, it wasn't a massive blow. I had my head the wrong way. It was just one of those things.

"You never want to let your team down. That's why I wasn't allowed back on the pitch because as a player, you would come back on regardless as long as you feel you can keep going. That's why the tests are there during the game.

"I know my family were worried because concussion is serious. It is not like a hamstring where if it tears again it's hard luck.

"If you do something with the head again. . . my family were very aware of it and were very concerned.

"The one thing about this compared to any other injury is there are procedures put in place. It's not like another injury where you get through where you can do less reps.

"If you don't pass the computerised test, then there is nothing you can do. For me, I was very happy with the procedures that were followed. I was very happy that I had no symptoms the whole way through the week.

"I was happy that the tests went well, the return to play protocols, the running, wearing the heart rates.

"I was also very happy that I don't think I would have taken any risks. I don't think it is fair on the family and the team and myself."

Touchline: Sideways look at the Oval Office


Ireland 13 England 10

March 30, 1985, Lansdowne Road

The day of the drop goal which its kicker, Michael Kiernan, would later relate was replayed more commonly than the Angelus. It was, truly, a religious experience for those who were there.

With just five minutes left, with the teams level in a slug-fest on soggy turf, the spiritual leader of the Irish team delivered a classic exhortation that would not have been condoned from any pulpit.

Ciaran Fitzgerald's classic line - ask your parents, kids, as no bad language is allowed in this column - carried his team on a surf of emotion towards the finishing line. "I don't know where it came from," said the army man. Kiernan's drop goal was launched moments later. Every Irishman knows now where that went.

Ireland - H MacNeill; T Ringland, B Mullin, M Kiernan, K Crossan; P Dean, M Bradley; P Orr, C Fitzgerald (capt), JJ McCoy, D Lenihan, W Anderson, P Matthews, N Carr, B Spillane.

England - C Martin; S Smith, K Simms, P Dodge capt, R Underwood; R Andrew, N Melville; P Blakeway, S Brain, G Pearce, J Orwin, W Dooley, J Hall, D Cooke, B Hesford.

Jennings and Back bolster TV3 line-up

TV3 will launch their World Cup coverage this morning and the channel are expected to confirm their resolution to retain coverage of all 48 games.

England World Cup winner Neil Back will be unveiled this morning as one of the expert pundits, while Leinster's Shane Jennings - who is retiring at the end of the season - also joins the line-up, completing his leap into the dreaded media with almost indecent haste! Keith Wood has already been revealed as one of the experts alongside anchor Matt Cooper.

Setanta Ireland had been mooted as a potential option had TV3 decided to off-load some of their coverage, as had been the case in recent years.

U-20s' capital investment

There was a time when every Six Nations weekend would begin in Donnybrook for an 'A' international, and the removal of those Friday night affairs from the calendar was a loss to the social scene, even if the rugby wasn't always great.

That's why the decision to hold tomorrow night's U-20 clash between Nigel Carolan's high-flying Irish team and Jon Callard's England on the new 4G surface at the Dublin 4 venue is a masterstroke. Athlone has been a good home to the 'Wolfpuppies', but travelling fans and capital-dwellers will welcome the chance to check out the most exciting Irish side in some time with a backline that carved France apart two weeks ago at Dubarry Park.

The game is not yet a sell-out, but the IRFU are expecting a big crowd and recommend fans pick up their tickets in advance via Ticketmaster.

Number of the weekend

880 England have made the most metres in this year's championship. Easy to see where their intentions will lie this weekend.


"I know my job pretty well on the field, but Johnny knows where the other 14 players on the pitch should be at any one time. He's the standard bearer in everything for us at the moment."

High praise from a former Lions captain, Paul O'Connell, for his out-half Jonathan Sexton.



Nightmare. Have to drive home from Bristol Airport to get my passport cos @Ryanair won't take ID like @AerLingus. Hold off for me Leinster

Welsh whistler Nigel Owens forgot his passport last weekend but Aer Lingus came to the rescue.

Compiled by David Kelly and Ruaidhri O'Connor

Irish Independent

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