Ruan Pienaar backs inspirational Rory Best to be next Irish captain
John Smit, Victor Matfield and Johann Muller. Ruan Pienaar knows a good captain having served under three of the best, and he believes Rory Best is in that calibre as he backed his Ulster team-mate to succeed Paul O'Connell as Ireland skipper.
The 33-year-old hooker is the bookies' favourite to be Joe Schmidt's choice to lead his side into the Six Nations and his role in the northern province's comeback from 23-0 down at half-time to Oyonnax on Sunday was a timely reminder of his leadership abilities.
After the game, Paddy Jackson hailed the skipper for the expletive-laden speech that roused the troops sufficiently for them to come back and win 24-23, while Les Kiss was also full of praise for his influence.
Pienaar concedes that he knows Best far better than the other candidates for the job, but he's well placed to assess captains given his exposure to great leaders over the years.
"I think so," the 88-times capped Springbok said. "Obviously I'm biased because he's my captain here but I think he has all the qualities to be Irish captain. Hopefully he has the chance to do it.
"It (the half-time speech) was harsh words, but they were needed. I think everyone responded well. He's been a great leader this season and in past seasons. It's great to have his captaincy and leadership."
Pienaar played a leading role in Ulster's comeback, coming on with Jackson and Nick Williams at half-time to help turn around a difficult situation at a difficult venue.
While the scrum-half exuded calm and made good decisions, it was the out-half who stole the headlines with his excellent general play and the 51-metre kick to win it that further demonstrated his development into a top-quality No 10.
In previous years, Ulster would have looked to Pienaar to nail the pivotal kick, but it was the 24-year-old Jackson who stepped up and nailed the clutch kick to win the game.
"Paddy has been kicking well, that's why I haven't got a lot of shots myself this season," Pienaar conceded. "He's in great form with the boot this season. He struck it sweetly and the ball carried well. There was great composure and it shows the way he's playing.
"He was a bit disappointed with a couple of the kicks against Munster, (so) to bounce back and make that kick, hats off to him. He's worked hard and I'm very pleased for him."
Kiss has watched Jackson's development since his emergence as a teenager and believes he is ready to take the next step and begin challenging Johnny Sexton for the Ireland starting shirt in the not-too-distant future.
"That's probably the next step for sure. He's not kidding himself about whether he's a full-fledged international yet. He'd like to have the opportunity to prove that," the Ulster director of rugby said.
"But we know what Johnny can do, we saw it on Friday night. It's just good timing for Ireland, it's great to see that and it's good to see Paddy doing as well as he is and Mads (Ian Madigan) is doing alright too. It's good from an Irish perspective."
That's all good news for Schmidt who will name his Six Nations squad next week.
Kiss revealed that Jared Payne could return to fitness next week after almost four months on the sidelines with the foot injury he sustained during the World Cup.
However, while Schmidt might want to see his starting outside centre wear the No 13 shirt, Payne may return at full-back against Saracens as a result of the form of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall and the adductor muscle injury sustained by Louis Ludik last Sunday.
"Stu and Luke have played a lot of rugby for us recently and have delivered for us, but it gives us options," Kiss said. "It'll be our selections and we'll select to win."
Ulster are almost certain to be without Williams for their clash with the English champions, while Sam Arnold's hamstring injury is also set to rule him out. Andrew Trimble will return to the fold, while Wiehahn Herbst is also likely to be fit.