Judgement Call

We are struggling to think of anything as unbelievable (in this sense of not being believable) as Dylan Hartley being sent off in a Premiership final for calling Wayne Barnes a “f*cking cheat”. Its just so crazy. Consider this:

  • He is captain of the Saints
  • It was one of the biggest games of his career
  • He had previously been warned by Barnes for verbals
  • He was due to fly out on a Lions tour in a matter of days
  • Barnes had flagged his desire not to be making high-profile decisions, following some previous controversies in Premiership playoffs (e.g. Chris Ashton getting binned for being lamped by Manu)

As sporting meltdowns go, it takes some topping – Zinedine Zidane and Richie Tennenbaum are about the only ones we can think of.

Hartley will miss the Lions tour, for which Rory “Nice-but-throws-awry” Best has been called up in his stead. Best is the classiest of chaps, as evidenced by his tweet in the aftermath of not being selected initially – he referred to how this paled into insignificance compared to the bigger things in life, such as the Nevin Spence tragedy.

Like injury being Ireland’s best selector, perhaps Hartley’s meltdown has been Gatty’s – there is a recent history of late callups playing key roles in Lions’ series (Paul Wallace, Tom Croft) and Besty, although clearly third choice right now, has a chance to do the same. Having said that, he is clearly third choice by now – unlike Tom Youngs (Premiership Player of the Year) and Richard Hibbert (standout hooker in the Six Nations), and wasn’t selected initially for a good reason – he simply wasn’t playing well enough.

What it also calls into question, however, is Gatty’s judgement – he considered Hartley to have the talent and mental capacity to thrive on a Lions tour – that assessment is in tatters after Saturday, and if the tour starts to go wrong, it will  be used as a stick to beat Gatty with. He’s been rowing back a bit since Saturday, talking about how he agonized afterwards had he made the right decision, and talked about Graham Rowntree’s input, but the buck stops with him, and he picked Hartley.

The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man, and the semi-mythic status of the red jersey reflects that. For example, Gerald Davies was just keeping his shirt warm for Ugo Monye, and he’ll pass it on to George North, and so on.

Without getting too teary about it, any discussion of the Lions is incomplete without a reference to “character” – is Player X a Lion, they’ll say, which has a greater implication than his ability – it talks to more earthy qualities, like smiling through midweek games with NSW Country and being a “good tourist”.  Hartley always struck us as an odd selection, even leaving aside our Besty-love – he routinely cracks under pressure, and has accumulated multiple bans. Gatty’s faith in him has been shredded in spectacular fashion – let’s hope he gets more calls right than wrong from here on.

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  1. Swiwi

     /  May 28, 2013

    “The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man”

    The ABs might have something to say about that, but then I’m biased.

    It’s a blessing in disguise for the Lions, Hartley is a real liability to any team from a discipline point of view.

  2. Len

     /  May 28, 2013

    If you watch the play back on the incident it all comes back to frustration arising from Myler not actually listening to Barnes when he told him (about three times) you can’t kick directly for touch. Glad to see WB has finally developed some guts and was willing to go to the red. Rugby has been held up in the last few years as an example of how player referee interaction should happen (especially during program’s discussing the slip in GAA referee control). That sort of mouthing off to the ref needs to stamped out.

  3. Bushmills

     /  May 28, 2013

    I just listened to RTE’s “Rugby on Off the Ball” and I could not believe my ears that Trevor Hogan said he felt sorry for Hartley. This is a player that has a history of biting, gouging and throwing cheap shots against Irish players. I have a range of emotions that fill my brain when Hartley is mentioned and pity is not one of them. Justice is my overwhelming feeling right now and I hope Rory Best makes the most of his talents in Australia.

    I would also add that we on these blogs are always so critical of referees. I have nothing but praise for Barnes in the cool way he handled the last 5 minutes when both Myler and Harltley had a melt down. Back chat to the ref has always been a no-no and delighted with the comments from the RFU for so quickly upholding the integrity of the referee thru Hartleys swift ban.

  4. zdm

     /  May 28, 2013

    I’d half jokingly been predicting that Hartley would shoot himself in the foot and allow Best to be called up but I didn’t think he would oblige so willingly.

    Hartley has led a charmed life with regards to coaches ignoring his obviously thuggish behaviour – he was touted as a potential England captain not so long ago, which seems even more bizzare than ever now.

    A third rate hooker with a temper, the Lions should be glad to get rid of him.

  5. Laurence Rocke

     /  May 28, 2013

    I will not be surprised in the slightest if Besty is first choice for the tests, You say that he didn’t play well this season – I’m guessing that you meant mainly in the 6N and since. No doubt that his throwing in has been under par (for him) although, apart from one long throw when Toner got up in front of Diack, it was good last Saturday. If you look back to his performances when Muller (best line out stats in the ERC last season) and POC have been playing, there is little comparison with this season’s 6N. In terms of his general play, he played at least 70 minutes of every 6N match, far more than any other hooker on display and was obviously wrecked by the end of the tournament. He had another outstanding match on Saturday and, given a bit of rest now, I think he will be a star for the Lions.

    • I’d agree with you. I don’t think he was bad in the 6 Nations, on the contrary, he was one of Ireland’s better performing players. He was simply awesome against Wales, my man of the match, and displayed huge work rate around the park with a high amount of tackles and turnovers. His throwing wasn’t great in two halves, one against Scotland and another against Italy, I think? But the Scottish mishaps were more due to Jim Hamilton’s excellence in the air as opposed to solely Best’s throwing. While I’m at it, I’m astounded that Hamilton wasn’t on the plane ahead of Gray and Evans. Gray’s been out of form and injured. Hamilton was a stand out.

      Also don’t fully subscribe to the idea that Hibbard was the standout hooker. It was a poor competition for most positions, and I’d argue that Hibbard only had 2 good games, the last two. Tom Youngs still doesn’t convince me in the set piece, although he’s good around the park.

      Best offers more than the others overall, and while he’s throwing isn’t top notch, it’s not bad, and Youngs and Hibbard’s throwing isn’t significantly better.

      • I think Gatland had Hartley in mind as starter and one of the other two as impact Hookers, given their physicality round the pitch. As such I actually think Best is now the incumbent above the other two.

        His consistency and ability round the park is far more valuable in the first 40 – 60 minutes of a game as I wouldn’t really see him as being able to make an impact like the other two would.

      • Sound Steve

         /  May 30, 2013

        Hamilton’s excellence in the air – give me a break. He’s one of the least athletic locks around. Our lineout was quite poor as a unit. All you have to do is pressurise the throw (in other words, jump) and it fell apart.

  6. Len

     /  May 28, 2013

    How anyone could feel sorry for this guy is beyond me. I did some very rough calculations based on his career to date. He’s had a career of roughly 395 weeks (sep05 to last Sunday). The main bans he’s had were 26 weeks for gouging, 8 weeks for biting, 2 weeks for punching and now 11weeks for abusing the ref (these are all I could find but anyone knows of more let me know). That’s a total of 47 weeks banned or 12% of his total career.

  7. Connachtexile

     /  May 28, 2013

    I think thinking of Simon Easterby after reading your article, another lad who wasn’t on the plane initially and who went on to have a stormer of a tournament with the Lions in New Zealand. I think Best will surprise some of the pundits and I for one am glad he is going. He should have gone to South Africa but McGeechan was obsessed with bringing tiny Hookers who couldn’t stand up the the Sringboks physicality. A very lucky let off for Gatland that Hartley had gone this early.

    • Simon Farrell (@SFarrell_5)

       /  May 28, 2013

      In fairness to Geech, his initial Lions squad did seem like Flannery + 2 others. And Rees is hardly a small fella as well. In terms of physicality being deprived of Fla vs. Bizzie DuPlessis was probably one of the biggest disappointments of the tour. Agree about Easterby though.

      • ORiordan

         /  May 28, 2013

        I suspect Rowntree was heavily behind the Mearsy and Vicksy selections for 2009 and would have been pushing Youngsy and Harts this year as well.

  8. Michael

     /  May 28, 2013

    Has anyone here heard a rumor that Best took a swing at Gatland after a 6n game a couple of years ago in the post match function? Its a mate of a mate rumor, so could be complete bullsh1t.

    • ORiordan

       /  May 28, 2013

      Sounds like bollox and an attempt to explain Best’s initial non-selection. In reality, Ulster and Ireland’s lineouts in the HEC and 6N hadn’t been performing well (and I’m not saying that was all due to Best) and Best didn’t have anyone fighting his corner in the selection room.

      • Michael

         /  May 28, 2013

        Its probably nonsense. Just wondering if anyone else had heard it.

  9. @Completebore

     /  May 28, 2013

    Is there no sympathy for the real victims in this? The Australian players who’ve been sharpening sledges to get under Hartley’s skin since the squad was announced and now will never get the chance to deploy them. If there wasn’t at least one players betting pool in existence to see who was the first to get him to snap them my faith in the Australian male’s love of both gambling and creative verbal abuse will be sorely shaken.

    • Bushmills

       /  May 28, 2013

      Don’t worry, there are plenty of other Kiwis in the tour party for the Aussies to bait….

  10. zdm

     /  May 28, 2013

    The much more savvy strategy would be for Hibbard to start.

    It should come as no surprise that the Lions will target the Aussies in the set piece – both the line out and the scrum.

    They should therefore aim to play 50 minutes of territorial, ball-booting rugby with all the bosh-monkeys available in the back line with the aim of tiring out the Aussie tight five, while using Hibbards superior throwing to our superior locks to keep the board ticking over then in the final 30, spring Best to target their scrum.
    The Australian scrum has always been a weak point and by bringing on your strongest hooker with two fresh props after their tight five have been chasing bombs and tackling Welsh monsters on the inside line, you get a dominant scrum and quick ball. Throw in the likes of Hogg, Bob or Maitland off the bench to inject some gas and you have a recipe for Aussie-mincing success.

  11. Spike

     /  May 28, 2013

    While I disagreed with picking Hartley (see Mole’s piece comparing him to Thomo) and couldn’t be happier for a very deserving Rory Best, I do feel bad for the Saints hooker. It’s completely his own fault of course, but there’s no joy in seeing someone’s dreams snatched away – even if by their own hand. I felt as bad for Alan Quinlan four years ago, and didn’t like the celebrations in certain quarters that Tom Croft would travel in his place. Hopefully Hartley sorts his issues out and kicks on from here.

    Separately, I’m never sure with Rory whether he’s a good lineout thrower, but occasionally faced with few options (Ireland in the 6N, Ulster without Muller) or just prone to the yips under pressure (eg: last 4 throws against Scotland in 2010). I tend to think the former, and his work at scrum and ruck time brings a lot to the table.

  12. Buzz

     /  May 29, 2013

    Well, another well balanced, insightful and fair piece by WOC. (Why can’t all rugby writers be as good?)

    As an English rugby fan who dips in here now and again I couldn’t agree more. Although Hartley is a decent rugby player and has that abrasive edge which can come in handy at the top level his inability to control himself is a liability.

    Brian Moore reckons that Hartley is actually a decent sort of bloke off the field but his behaviour on the field speaks for itself.

    Stuart Lancaster should call time on his international career and personally I’m glad that an Irishmen is swelling the Lions ranks in his place – surely they make better tourists.

    • It was Moore who refused to speak to Steve Smith on the 89 Lions tour wasn’t it!!

    • Thanks for the kind words my friend – we hate to see talent unfulfilled due to character flaw, no matter how odious the man’s actions.

      Take Cipriani as well – its FIVE years since he filleted Ireland in Twickenham – incredible. Breaks our heart

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