An old secondary school teacher of mine had a saying that he was fond of using – “Everything happens for a reason”. I’ve never been so sure about this particular statement, mainly because it sounds too much to me like ‘fate’ and I’ve always disliked the idea that we are helpless to change or alter the events of our future.
[A rather philosophical start to this week’s blog but stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.]
However, I cannot deny that there are moments in a person’s life when things just ‘click’ for you at precisely the right time. Conversely, there are occasions when events will conspire against you, to the point where they are completely ruinous. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I bring before you as evidence the events of last weekend’s Aviva Premiership and Pro12 finals and the contrasting fortunes of two hookers and captains, namely Rory Best of Ulster and Dylan Hartley of Northampton Saints.
This season’s edition of the RaboDirect Pro 12 has not been what you would call ‘vintage’. There have been some awful games which, in all fairness, have usually involved Welsh sides. That probably says more about the state of Welsh regional rugby than the quality of the competition as a whole but still, there’s been some dross.
[Come to think of it, a lot of those rugby howlers were broadcast on BBC Scrum V. Could there be such a thing as the curse of Scrum V? Perhaps it’s a good thing that Sky Sports have got their hands on a number of games from the 2014/2015 season? Anyway, I digress.]
The Pro 12 has had its fair share of stinkers during the last campaign but Saturday’s final in Dublin between Leinster and Ulster was a fantastic game played with great intensity and speed in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd. I suspect that the crowd would have been much larger had they played it at the Aviva Stadium rather than the RDS and, arguably, staging it at the Aviva would have improved the rugby public’s perception of the tournament. Having said that, it was a great advertisement for what the league could become on a week-in-week-out basis and one can only hope that the Welsh regions and the WRU were watching. Leinster deserved it in the end but Ulster more than played their part. There were a couple of outstanding performances from the Men in White and none more so than from their captain, Rory Best, who was outstanding. He brought a ferocity that was reminiscent of his play in the Wales v Ireland match earlier in the year. Yet, if possible, he was even better in Saturday’s final. His work rate was outstanding, appearing at both ends of the field in the blink of an eye and playing like a second No. 7 when it came to ruck-time. In watching him play, you had to wonder whether there was a better hooker in Europe. He looked like a British and Irish Lion…
…which is more than can be said for Dylan Hartley who was more lout than lion in the Aviva Premiership Final at Twickenham. As was the case in Dublin, the game was a belter – a typically edgy and dramatic East Midlands derby with both sides contributing to the occasion. However, the approach of Northampton’s captain (compared to his Ulster counterpart) could not have been more different. Hartley is no stranger to controversy on the field having received bans in the past for punching, biting and eye-gouging. I read an article in the build-up to the game this week which described Hartley as a ‘marmite’ character (i.e. you either love him or hate him). Well Dylan, you succeeded in leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of any rugby-loving supporter given your actions of the last weekend. Having watched the game, Hartley looked abrasive from the off…which is fine. You want some of that amongst your forwards. But in a game that is defined by ‘laws’ rather than ‘rules’, there are some actions that are considered to be cardinal sins. One of these is the verbal abuse of a referee. Towards the stroke of half-time and with a couple of decisions going against the Saints, Hartley spoke out at referee Wayne Barnes who duly told him that if he (Hartley) continued, he would take action to stop him. Two minutes later, Hartley called Barnes a ‘f***ing cheat’ to which he was rightly shown the red card (giving him the unwelcome accolade of becoming the first player to be sent off in a Premiership Final).
If that wasn’t bad enough for Northampton’s skipper, a day later he was banned for eleven weeks – a ruling that will prevent him from taking part in the Lions tour to Australia (having been named in Warren Gatland’s initial 37-man squad). Hartley’s inclusion in the squad was a controversial one to start with as most people (this blogger included) had believed Best was certain to tour if not start the first test. Because of the events of last weekend’s finals, many rugby fans will no doubt echo the sentiments of my old teacher and declare that ‘it’s all happened for a reason’. With the news that Best has taken Hartley’s place on the plane to Hong Kong, such mystics will no doubt say that the revised squad is how it should have been in the first place. I have to admit I find it difficult to argue against those sentiments, but whereas most would point to form when questioning Hartley’s initial inclusion at Best’s expense, I would turn to character and temperament.
Since his sending off there have been plenty of comments/tweets about how it would be wrong to revel in Hartley’s self-inflicted Lions omission, even if we can all agree that what he did was wrong. The argument behind these comments is that, even though he has been found guilty of committing one of rugby’s major crimes, we should respect the fact that a competitive rugby player has seen his dreams dashed overnight. Quite frankly this is not a view I share and I would argue that Hartley’s previous record is enough to suggest he did not deserve a Lions place or the honour of representing the British and Irish Lions. Since 2007, Hartley has been banned (in total) from playing rugby for an astonishing 47 weeks – the equivalent of an entire season. In any other profession, an employee who is prevented from working for that amount of time due to bad behaviour would be castigated but, amazingly, Hartley is captain of Northampton Saints and has even been touted as a possible England captain. As mentioned in a previous blog, the necessity of the rugby captain to lead by example is as important today as it ever was. Through his multiple misdemeanours, Hartley provides the very worst example for his team-mates and young fans alike. In contrast, Rory Best is well regarded and respected throughout the game…he is captaincy material. Does everything happen for a reason? Who knows. But thank the deity that you may or may not believe in that a dirty player that did not deserve to tour with the Lions will no longer do so, due to his own arrogance and stupidity.
A word of warning though for those Lions fans who believe in karma and the like – there’s no guarantee that Best will play a major role on tour. After all, he was overlooked initially and you’d have to question what it was in Best’s play that led Gatland and his fellow coaches to overlook him in the first place. If the reservations of those coaches are strong enough then we may see him resigned to third-choice hooker behind Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen because, as was shown on Saturday, Best’s ability to spoil and steal at the ruck would be an invaluable asset on the hard-grounds of Australia.
As the Lions prepare for their first match on tour (against the Barbarians) the class of 2013 look a lot better without the ill-disciplined Dylan Hartley than they did with him, but with a welcome lack of pre-tour injuries and the late inclusion of Ulster’s formidable captain, the squad that arrive in Oz really will reflect the best that Britain and Ireland have to offer.
[Which reminds me, from here on the blog will be reverting to weekly posts for the duration of the British and Irish Lions tour. Stay tuned for comment and debate on all the news from Down Under as the ‘red shirts’ aim to teach the ‘boys in gold’ a good ol’ rugby lesson].