The imminent return of England’s outlaw captain to the game’s Old Bailey over his latest crime exposes him to the risk of being beaten to the punch for the ultimate prize by a farmer from south Down.
The odds against Rory Best captaining the Lions in New Zealand next summer have been shortening all weekend.
If there had been a strong case for the Ulster hooker’s appointment before last Friday night, Hartley’s gratuitous violence ensures there is a considerably stronger one to be made this morning (Monday).
While Best would not wish to benefit from a rival’s punishment, the fact of the matter is he already has.
Hartley’s first red card, for abusing referee Wayne Barnes during Northampton’s Grand Final against Leicester at Twickenham in May 2013, cleared the way for Best to replace him as a Lion just days before they took off on their last tour, to Australia.
Ireland’s unflappable captain needs no unwitting assistance to make the next one as a player but Hartley’s deteriorating disciplinary record threatens to cost him more than a swift return to an all too familiar state of suspension, one that has already far outstripped Murder on the Orient Express.
He has already served 54 weeks starting with six months for gouging Ireland’s occasional flanker Johnny O’Connor and England’s James Haskell against Wasps in April 2007.
Five years later, Captain Calamity got eight weeks for biting Stephen Ferris on the arm during an England-Ireland match with another fortnight later that same year for punching, who else, but Best during a European Cup tie.
Abusing Barnes cost him 11 more followed by three weeks for elbowing Leicester centre Matt Smith and a month for butting Jamie George, England’s current No 2.
Hartley’s brutish swinging arm from behind which made a concussed Sean O’Brien his fourth Irish victim would have caused uproar at Madison Square Garden never mind at Franklin’s horticultural equivalent in a town famous for its shoes. What a lot of old cobblers’…
The offence, roundly condemned as indefensible, carries an eight-week sentence which would leave England opening the defence of their Grand Slam without him.
A record as long as both arms, never mind one, could put him out for longer still.
Hartley has had the equivalent of seven red cards, four of them dealt retrospectively in citings for foul play as outlined.
Nobody in the professional era has had that many, not even Paul O’Connell’s old lumberjack of a sparring partner, Jamie Cudmore.
If all those reds are deemed to be unworthy of captaining the best of British and Irish, then the admirable Best is in line to maintain a rich tradition as the fourth Irish hooker to lead the Lions in New Zealand, following Ciaran Fitzgerald (1983), Ronnie Dawson (1959) and Karl Mullen (1950).
Could Tigers yet provide a twist in the tale?
Once upon a time long ago, Leicester incurred the wrath of the Reverend Ian Paisley for daring to play a game of rugby in Belfast on the Sabbath.
The old firebrand led a demonstration outside Ravenhill from the Mount Merrion Free Presbyterian church next door warning of hell and damnation.
And when Martin Johnson’s tame old Tigers left with their tails between their legs in a shocked state of pointlessness, stuffed 33-0, the senior half of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ would have thought that served them right.
In 92 European ties since that sunny Sunday 13 seasons ago, they had never failed to fire a shot, until Thomond Park.
Strangely, Leicester, alone of English clubs, had never lost there, a fact made all the stranger by the manner of their rout on a scale never experienced before.
When they first won in Limerick, 10 seasons ago, Ronan O’Gara remembered them “walking off the pitch as if they owned the place”.
This time they walked off as if they were too embarrassed to look at the sum total of their destruction flashing above them on the scoreboard: 38-0.
Munster’s Rassie Erasmus did what head coaches always do during the middle back-to- back rounds in Europe and offered some sobering thoughts about Saturday’s return at Tigerville.
Maybe he had an old score in mind. Six days after upsetting Mr Paisley, Leicester repaid Ulster in like fashion, thrashing them 49-7 — a 75-point swing.
If history is to repeat itself, they will require an even more outrageous swing against superior opponents. As Mr Paisley would have said: ‘Never! Never! Never!’
Super wins give PRO12 status huge shot in the arm
The Champions’ Cup weekend produced four mighty victories for teams from the much-maligned PRO12, at the expense of the reigning French champions (Racing), current leaders of the Top 14 (Clermont) and two former English winners in Northampton and Leicester).
As a consequence, PRO12 players commandeered the podium for best performances — CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Ulster’s Test Lion in the making, Iain Henderson with Darren Sweetnam giving them a run for their money.
Bonus points all round for Leinster, Ulster and Munster enabled the PRO12 to monopolise the best try list — Charles Piutau, Gary Ringrose, Luke Marshall, Jamison Gibson-Park and Paddy Jackson, responding to Ulster’s Arsenal kit with a passable impersonation of George Best.
No contender provided more exhilarating confirmation of their enduring capacity to keep reproducing home-grown talent than Leinster. Ross Byrne, third-choice fly half behind Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, responded to an early emergency at Northampton with some distinction.
The same can be said of another 21-year-old, Ringrose, and a pair of 22-year-old wings, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin. In contrast, Racing relied on a quartet of backs with an average age of 34 — Dan Carter, Casey Laulala, Anthony Tuitavake and Joe Rokocoko.
Glasgow’s rampaging Warriors made them feel their years.
Crooked feed now fair game in scrum
“The scrum-half must throw in the ball (my italics) along the middle line so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders. Sanction: Free kick.”
The crooked feed, as practised by just about every scrum-half and approved by just about every referee, seems to have been accepted as part of the game.
When did they change the law…?
Straight talking has been drummed out of so many players that one daring to speak his mind comes as a pleasant surprise. Northampton captain Tom Wood (pictured) is to be commended for what he had to say about the Saints’ capitulation to Leinster.
“We spoke all week about having a big start and coming out of the blocks but we were just flat,” he said. “We sat and watched them for 20 minutes.”
12 teams still in the hunt
Three rounds down, three to go, and 12 teams in serious contention for the quarter-finals — four Irish (Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster), five French (Clermont, Montpellier, Toulon, Toulouse, Bordeaux), two English (Saracens, Wasps), one Scottish (Glasgow Warriors).