Rory Best believes Dylan Hartley “never lets you down” and deserves sympathy for his disciplinary record overshadowing his England captaincy.
Ireland captain Best admitted “I almost feel a little bit sorry for him” after watching Hartley defending his suitability to lead England under new boss Eddie Jones.
Hartley’s career bans total 54 weeks with suspensions for eye-gouging, biting, punching and swearing, costing the Northampton hooker a place on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour and at the 2015 World Cup.
Hartley was banned for two weeks after clashing with Best during Ulster’s 25-6 win over Northampton in December 2012 – but not even first-hand experience of the New Zealand-born hooker’s short fuse would allow Ireland’s captain to criticise his England counterpart.
“I suppose I almost feel a little bit sorry for him,” said Best of Hartley, ahead of Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations trip to face England at Twickenham this evening.
“He’s been given this massive honour of England captain and even at the launch of the Six Nations all anyone wanted to talk to him about was his disciplinary record, when everyone should have been talking about what a fantastic player he has been.”
The now-retired Paul O’Connell mastered the art of lavishing his opposite numbers and chief rivals with praise in the build-up to Ireland Test matches.
The talismanic lock knew just how to heap the pressure back on opponents through ringing midweek endorsements.
Now Best appears to have assumed that mantle, especially when asserting Hartley “never lets you down”.
While England’s new skipper has started well under Jones, keeping his cool and securing wins over Scotland and Italy, the real challenges lie ahead.
There can be no question Hartley let down Northampton in being sent off for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes in the 2013 Aviva Premiership final.
Northampton went on to lose 37-17 to bitter rivals Leicester, with Hartley’s 11-week ban forcing him to miss the Lions tour to Australia.
Abrasive England boss Jones wants Hartley to master his potent scrummaging and fiery play while keeping his temper in the heat of battle, despite his chequered disciplinary past.
Ulster hooker Best firmly believes Hartley merits that chance, even downplaying his own set-to with the Northampton front-rower back in 2012.
“That was a few years ago, that was just one of those things,” said Best of Hartley’s punch on him in December 2012.
“I think Ulster were going pretty well at that stage of the game as well.
“To be honest, I think when the hearing came up I said I didn’t think there was a whole lot in it. It was just two combative players going at each other.
“From my point of view that’s what he is, he’s combative.
“And also what a fantastic leader he’s been at Northampton up until this season. He led them to a Premiership win and a European Cup final.
“That’s the sort of player that we should be talking about in my opinion.
“He’s a quality player, I’ve played against him quite a few times now and I think when you play against Dylan you know it’s going to be a tough game.
“That’s what it is, when you play against the top opponents, the top hookers in this case, that’s what you expect.
“The thing that he brings is that he never lets you down. He plays to a level that whenever he plays really well or doesn’t play quite as well they’re in a really tight band.
“He never has an off day, you never feel it could be one of those days where you get it easy off him. He’s a real competitor.”