Rory Best celebrates late call to join British Lions tour

Rory Best arrives at Belfast International Airport to fly out and meet up with his British and Irish Lions team-mates. Wishing him good luck and saying goodbye are his son Ben, daughter Penny and wife Jodie
Rory Best arrives at Belfast International Airport to fly out and meet up with his British and Irish Lions team-mates. Wishing him good luck and saying goodbye are his son Ben, daughter Penny and wife Jodie

Rory Best reflected on the fluctuating fortunes of professional sport as he prepared to join the British and Irish Lions’ flight to Hong Kong on Monday.

On April 30 Best was devastated to have been omitted from the 37-man squad selected for the tour to Australia, experiencing the darkest moment of his career.

The 30-year-old, a respected figure among his Ireland and Ulster team-mates, was considered unfortunate to have lost out to England’s Dylan Hartley for a place among the three hookers.

But just as Best was coming to terms with another hammer blow in Saturday’s RaboDirect PRO12 final defeat by Leinster, news filtered through that Hartley had been sent off for abusing referee Wayne Barnes in the Aviva Premiership’s equivalent earlier that afternoon.

An 11-week suspension was issued to Hartley on Sunday and Best was immediately summoned by the Lions.

“When the initial squad was announced that was as low as I’ve felt.

“We were training at Ulster at the time and more and more people on our management were avoiding eye contact with me,” he said.

“Nobody avoids you when it’s good news, so I had an idea from that. It was bitterly disappointing and on that Tuesday afternoon I allowed myself to dwell on it and think deeply about the whole thing.

“But we had a few very important games coming up so it’s a case of picking yourself up and dusting yourself down.

“It was obviously disappointing to lose the RaboDirect PRO12 final to Leinster on Saturday but yesterday I got the call to come along and join the boys.

“You don’t like to dwell on other people’s misfortune, but I definitely feel for Dylan and it’s bitterly disappointing for him to miss out. That’s sport.”

Best, who has been capped 67 times, had been appointed captain of Ireland’s tour to North America and was due to meet up with the squad at their Carton House training camp this morning.

But now that he is ready to embark on his debut Lions tour, only the Test number two jersey will do.

“The Lions are something you dream of, an absolute honour to be here. I had to pull over on to the hard shoulder to make sure I didn’t veer off the road at that stage,” he said.

“When you don’t make the initial squad you try to stay fit and always keep your phone by your side.

“When the call came through it was a number I didn’t recognise. I don’t normally answer those but for this I made an exception. It was great news.

“Everyone’s here to play in the Test team and I’m no different. It will take a lot of hard work but it’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Best enjoyed a strong start to the RBS Six Nations but his form fell away later in the Championship with his line-out throwing the area of gravest concern.

The abrasiveness of Hartley ultimately decided it in the England front row’s favour.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland admits that omitting Best from the original 37 was a decision that subsequently occupied his mind.

“I have no problem admitting that post-selection I had that discussion with myself and said ‘did I make the right call?’” Gatland said.

“Everything that’s been written and people saying how unlucky he’s been is 100 per cent correct because I had those doubts initially myself.

“When we made the selection, the debate on hooker took by far the longest on and was he really unlucky.”

England hooker Dylan Hartley has yet to be officially ruled out of the 10-fixture itinerary due to his right of appeal, but his participation is effectively over.

“Dylan’s a young man who has made an unfortunate error,” said Gatland at Monday’s departure press conference in Kensington.

“To play the game you have to play on the edge, but unfortunately he’s gone to the edge of the cliff and jumped off it. That’s the only analogy I can draw.

“I called him yesterday and left a message on his phone. He left a message on my phone today thanking me for the call.

“I was looking forward to working with him and really feel for him. He’s made a poor judgement. Hopefully he can put this behind him and move on.

“It’s my understanding that he won’t be appealing the decision, but that’s entirely up to him. He may decide to do that in the next day or so.”