Rory Best almost driven to distraction by 'dream' Lions call-up

Ulster hooker received joyful news in his car while Gatland expresses sympathy for Hartley

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The Independent Online

The contrast could not have been more stark: a few hours after Dylan Hartley had veered off the rails into British and Irish Lions oblivion, Rory Best almost veered off the road in excitement. "I'm way beyond the highest high," the Ulster hooker said after replacing his disgraced rival in the most exclusive of all rugby gatherings. "I don't like to dwell on other people's misfortunes: in sport, good news is often received at the expense of someone else. But I'm elated. It's a dream."

Like Hartley, who beat him to the third hooking slot in Warren Gatland's original selection for the forthcoming tour of Australia, the man from County Armagh lost a cup final on Saturday.

Unlike Hartley, he managed to get through the game without swearing at the referee or calling him a cheat, and as a consequence, it was he who was on the night flight to Hong Kong for the opening game against the Barbarians this weekend.

Best was not contacted by the Lions until Hartley's disciplinary hearing had ended with the imposition of an 11-week suspension – more than enough to prevent him playing a part in events in Wallaby country.

"We wanted to be fair to Dylan; we didn't want to prejudice anything in any way," said Gatland, the head coach, who also went out of his way to ensure that Hartley was properly represented in his attempt to convince the tribunal that his frank and forthright remark during the Premiership final between Northampton and Leicester had not been aimed at Wayne Barnes, one of the sport's leading officials.

When the call came, from the Lions operations director Guy Richardson, Best was licking the wounds inflicted by defeat in the Pro 12 final in Dublin. "I was driving to the Ulster training facility to pick up some bits and pieces when my phone rang," he said.

"I didn't recognise the number and when that happens, I don't usually answer. I'm glad I made an exception. I had to pull on to the hard shoulder to make sure I didn't drive off the road."

According to Gatland, the contest between the two hookers – fierce competitors who had come to blows during a Heineken Cup match before Christmas – was the closest in the entire selection process, and while the coach initially felt he needed Hartley's bristling abrasiveness and exceptional close-quarter handling skills, he does not feel the party has been weakened by this controversial turn of events.

"The decision was that hard, I was discussing it with myself even after we'd made the announcement," Gatland revealed. "I kept on asking myself if I'd made the right choice."

It was a whole lot tougher on Best. "I didn't watch the squad announcement on television," he said, "because I was training with Ulster at the time. However, I had an inkling that I'd missed out because more and more people from the management were avoiding eye contact.

"You don't avoid eye contact when you're about to give someone good news, do you? I was disappointed, but I also knew I had to dust myself down pretty quickly because I was a leader in the Ulster group and we had big games coming up."

As the "laughter in the darkness" jokes started to circulate – one member of the Lions party ventured to suggest that Hartley was the first man in British history to be prevented from going to Australia on grounds of bad behaviour – Gatland expressed genuine sympathy for a player with whom he fell out publicly a couple of years ago but has since come to admire.

"He's a young man who has made an unfortunate error," he said. "I feel for him, and I left a message for him to that effect at the weekend.

"In top-level rugby you have to play on the edge. Sadly, Dylan has gone to the edge of a cliff and jumped off it. It's hard on him, but it's a reminder to us all that while we want to play a confrontational, physical game, discipline is vital. That goes for the coaches too. The responsibility is on us not to wind the players up past the point of no return."

When Best arrived in London at lunchtime, the Lions were fully together for the first time. Mercifully, Gatland had no serious injury hassles to concern him: only the Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins, who can now consider himself a three-tour Lion, was unable to train, but the calf strain he suffered while playing for Toulon in the Heineken Cup triumph over Clermont Auvergne 10 days ago is expected to sort itself out by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Gatland is planning for the Barbarians on the basis that they will be significantly more formidable in Hong Kong this weekend than they were at Twickenham 48 hours ago.

"You'll see a different team," he predicted. "Maybe it was the sun or perhaps they'd had a few beers during the week, but they were walking around after 20 minutes on Sunday," he said. "They'll be a bit more motivated against us."