Free Picks: British & Irish Lions Odds Minus Hartley

Richard O'Hagan

Sunday, May 26, 2013 3:04 PM GMT

The British and Irish Lions finally depart for their tour of Australia, but are forced to leave behind a key player.

Lions party departs minus Hartley 

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland was dreading this weekend. With so many of his players taking part in the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro12 there was always a risk of one of his squad suffering a tour-ending injury before the tour even started. Indeed, Gatland may have been relieved to see two of his players, Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney, miss Leinsters win over Ulster in the Pro12 final with injuries which will heal well before the opening exchanges of the tour.

What he could not have factored in, though, was what happened to hooker Dylan Hartley. Hartley, one of two players in the squad who, like Gatland, were born in New Zealand (Scotland winger Sean Maitland being the other), was a key part of Gatland’s plans, the intention being to use his expertise in playing on the harder, faster, southern hemisphere pitches.

Hartley now looks certain to miss the tour after being sent off in the Aviva Premiership final on Saturday afternoon. Captaining his team, Northampton Saints, he addressed referee Wayne Barnes in terms unrepeatable in full here, but which included the word ‘cheat’. The straight red card was inevitable and the only question now is the length of the resulting ban.

The starting point mandated by the International Rugby Board (‘IRB’) for such an offense is six weeks, and Lions management have already said that if Hartley is not available for the first Australian fixture of the tour on June 5 then he will not tour. A disciplinary hearing has been arranged for Wednesday and could deem the red card punishment enough. However, even allowing for the fact that Barnes is the sort of referee who regularly reduces everyone in rugby (bar the section of the IRB which appoints referees) to expletive-laden invective, Hartley’s disciplinary record is so poor that his bigger concern must be that he will suffer a ban reaching into the start of next season. That will at least be a small consolation for Ulster’s Rory Best, who is the man most likely to replace Hartley in the party.

All of which has somewhat overshadowed the start of the tour itself, a friendly workout against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. With the game being in the spiritual home of sevens rugby (a fast moving, high scoring 7-a-side version of the game) and the BaaBaas having a reputation for playing attractive running rugby, this should be a feast of rugby, with plenty of Lions players getting a run out, as some of them will not have played competitive rugby for almost a month.

For that reason alone the game comes with plenty of pitfalls for the Lions. They’ve also had less time than any previous Lions side to gel together as a team, even allowing for the fact that 14 of them play for Wales. This explains why Ladbrokes have this game at 3/1 betting odds to be the first which the Lions lose on this tour. That would destroy captain Sam Warburton’s plans for an unbeaten trip down under, something which currently is at 8/1 with the same bookmaker. If you are thinking of placing that bet, bear in mind that the last time the Lions had an unbeaten tour was in 1927 and that their opponents on that occasion were Argentina, who were very minor players in world rugby at that time.

Even if the Lions lose, the game provides an opportunity for some of them to get off the mark in the race to be top tryscorer on this tour. Wingers usually dominate this category and it is no surprise to see the big Welshman Alex Cuthbert favorite here, best priced at 4/1 with BetVictor. He’s not only fleet of foot, but very much in the modern mould of big, strong wing men and with a likely match-up against the smaller Digby Ioane in the Tests he looks a good bet even at those odds. It might also be worth having a little dabble on Brian O’Driscoll in this market, too. He’s currently 25/1 with Bet365 and. if fully fit, is the only one of the back line you can say is an absolute certainty to start the first Test. He’ll be well marked by the Australian midfield, but Ireland and Leinster have got around this recently by allowing him to play much closer to the forwards, almost as an auxillary flanker-cum-scrum half and he’s scored several tries in that role already this season.

Check out the Aviva finals picks & odds, here~