Hartley a reformed character, says Best

England and Ireland. Triple Crown at stake. Grand Slam still in the offing.

Hartley a reformed character, says Best

It’s one of those games that doesn’t require your usual subplots but it’s ripe with them anyway. Chief among them is the meeting of hookers Dylan Hartley and Rory Best who will lock eyes and much more besides when they pack down at Twickenham this Saturday.

It was Hartley’s choice words for referee Wayne Barnes in last season’s Premiership final at the same venue that led to his dismissal, suspension and omission from the Lions tour to Australia and, as a result, Best’s late inclusion onto Warren Gatland’s party.

The pair were more closely linked six months earlier when the England and Ireland hookers went at one another off the ball during Ulster’s Heineken defeat of Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens. Hartley was subsequently handed a two-week cooling-off period.

He has had to contend with many more.

It is seven years since he was slapped with a 26-week ban for eye-gouging the Wasps duo of James Haskell and Johnny O’Connor. In March 2012, he got eight weeks for biting Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations match. It would have been more but for his clean slate since the Wasps incident.

Maybe it’s something about Irishmen but the narrative emanating from across the Irish Sea this last week is of a reformed character. Now the elder statesman in a youthful England squad, he has spoken about turning the corner from rogue to respectability.

“He has got this name as being, sort of, not that nice a fella but off the pitch he’s a great guy and on the pitch he’s a competitor,” said Best yesterday.

“On the pitch he’ll do anything in his power to make sure his team don’t lose and in the past that has boiled over a little bit.

“But certainly this year you take your hat off to him. He’s come back stronger than ever. He’s playing a very hard, physical game. We’ve always got on pretty well.”

The Hartley-Best head-to-head is merely one personification of what is expected to be a thunderous clash between two packs who have already flexed their muscles in the opening two weeks of the Six Nations and for Ireland this is about more than a shot at a Triple Crown.

This will be the first time an Ireland pack has frequented the venue in southwest London since Mike Ross got injured and an eight already shunting backwards had to wedge loosehead Tom Court into the tighthead spot with predictably dire circumstances.

“The scrum is like any aspect of the game, it’s about momentum. England started the game really well, put pressure on us and when you’re going backwards at the start, no matter what you do to change it, the referee has already got a perception that England in that case were stronger and we struggled to stop that.”

Nobody is expecting anything approximating a repeat this time. Not after Ireland’s opening wins and not with an extra prop allowed on the bench, Marty Moore’s emergence as back-up to Ross and with eight of the Irish forwards who were involved two years ago returning to the scene of the crime.

Yet England, even without their injured tighthead Dan Cole, represent a significant step-up for this Ireland pack which has responded impressively to forwards coach John Plumtree’s instructions and ambition to attain levels of greatness.

A surging maul has been added to dogged work at the breakdown and a smoothly effective lineout but Best spoke of the need to hit England with something different while disagreeing with the suggestion that it would serve their interests better to avoid a full-on physical collision up front.

The spoils of victory are considerable.

Win or lose Ireland will likely travel to Paris next month with the chances of a first championship title since 2009 very much alive but claim a fourth win from six visits to London and they will turn into that last two games buttressed by the belief that would come with that Triple Crown.

Victory would also unleash the last vestiges of restraint among a public eager to experience the highs of that Grand Slam again but Best was unwilling to feed the hype by suggesting that there was a shared sense of expectation inside the camp.

“Last year we stuffed Wales in Cardiff and everyone got their hopes up really quickly and we ended up doing nothing for the rest of the championship except getting beaten and scraping a draw. From that point of view we are keeping our feet on the ground.

“The guys that were there in ’09 are all about one performance at the time. We’ve won two games, which is great, but England are next on our list and we have to perform and get a performance on Saturday.”

Extended Ireland squad

Forwards

R Best (Ulster), S Cronin (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), D Kilcoyne(Munster), M McCarthy (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), P O’Connell (capt) (Munster), T O’Donnell (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster).

Backs

I Boss (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), R Henshaw (Connacht), P Jackson (Ulster), F Jones (Munster), D Kearney (Leinster), R Kearney (Leinster), I Madigan (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton (Racing Metro), A Trimble (Ulster).

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