Sunday 21 January 2018

Best ready to produce tour de force on Lions debut

Ireland hooker aims to raise bar and stake an early claim for Test place

Rory Best
Rory Best
Conor George

Conor George

THE euphoria of his Lions selection was scarcely given time to seep into the extremities of Rory Best's broad frame before his mind turned to the list of things he had to get done before departing for London.

It didn't take long for the memory of Ulster's Pro12 final loss the previous night to be supplanted by his sense of satisfaction at getting a Lions' call.

Best was driving to Ulster's training base in Belfast when he received word alerting him to his change in circumstances and, crucially, summer destinations.

He had been scheduled to drive to Ireland's Carton House for a week of training before departing for the tour to North America and Canada.

The phone call from Lions coach Warren Gatland changed all that.

"I had planned on getting back up to Belfast and getting a lot of things done during our day off with Ireland in that coming week.

"They've now been left to my wife and dad to sort out. It was a rush to get everything together, because going on tour with Ireland is something I've done virtually every year for the last seven or eight and I'm relaxed about that.


"All of a sudden it hits you that this is a new experience and you like to be a little bit more organised for this sort of thing!" he added.

The rush to get things packed and organised evaporated in the heat of Hong Kong last week and today he becomes a Lions player when he joins seven of his Ireland team-mates in the team to play a weakened Western Force.

To all intents Force's season is over and they won't better their 14th place in the Super 15 table, but their coach Michael Foley has prioritised their derby against the Waratahs on Saturday with his selection.

"I suppose, in many ways we have to just focus on ourselves," said Best. "We've got the honour of pulling on the jersey and it's up to us, no matter who we're playing against, to get to certain standards.

"We don't have a lot of time because the tour is only 10 matches long. We have to get up to speed fast and have to gel together quickly. We have to take every opportunity to do that and, of course, this includes the game against the Force."

The Aussie outfit does contain six Test players, but the majority of their backline is made up of fringe performers.

As well as being without their Wallaby players Nick Cummins and Ben McCalman, first choice out-half Sias Ebersohn is also missing, as is full-back Jayden Hayward, prop Pek Cowan, in-form centre Kyle Godwin, hooker Heath Tessmann and lock Sam Wykes.

The weakened selection does bring the benefit of this outing for the Lions into question, but it also raises the possibility of the Lions being targeted by Force players seeking to make a name for themselves in the physical stakes.

It's something the Lions coaches have warned the players about. "Warren spoke about not being dragged into anything," explained forwards' coach Graham Rowntree – and Best has first-hand experience of how these games can quickly explode into a slug-fest.

He insists that the Lions won't get "mugged" as Ireland did when they played Bayonne in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup and Brian O'Driscoll had his cheekbone fractured, just one of a number of injuries suffered by Irish players.

"We got mugged against Bayonne because they came to fight and, instead of just physically matching them and not throwing any digs, we just backed off them. There's a subtle difference there and you need to be on the right side of it.

"There's been a lot said about people trying to make a name for themselves, but we have to concentrate on ourselves.

"We have to make sure that, physically, we're there. Certainly, as a pack of forwards, if we're on the money, we have a very good chance of winning the game.

"This is about this fresh new group of players coming together and trying to raise the bar slightly from where the team that played on Saturday night left it."

It is entirely probable the Lions will run up a big score against the Force in this game. They have been awful in this season's Super 15 competition and have won just three of their 14 games.

The Lions have included a number of players – including Best – who will be making their debuts and they will be anxious to make a positive impression as the tour continues to rumble toward the June 22 date of the first Test.

It will be particularly informative to see how Brian O'Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi combine in the midfield. After Jonathan Davies' impressive showing at outside-centre in the heat of Hong Kong the Ireland veteran needs to put in a strong performance.

Similarly, the all-Welsh second-row pair of Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans are already under pressure following the excellent performance of Paul O'Connell against the Barbarians.

How Sean O'Brien fares will also be revealing, as will how the back-row performs as a unit. All three are strong runners with ball-in-hand with Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip also very strong line-out options.

The strength of the Lions side has taken some commentators by surprise. It is generally accepted the game against the Queensland Reds on Saturday will be a far tougher test of their credentials and it was expected some players would be held in reserve for that game.

There is clearly an element of Warren Gatland wanting to keep the Wallabies guessing as to the likely make-up of his Test side. That it's so early in the tour also means that the Test team has yet to reveal itself with only one or two positions definitely filled.

For Best, that is all the encouragement he needs and now that he's in Australia with the Lions he's determined to make the most of the opportunity.

"Competition for places is what it's all about. For me, whether I was selected initially or coming in late as I did, I'm here and I'm getting a chance to play against the Force and I'll take it with both hands.

"It's about knuckling down now and trying to force my way into the Test team," Best added.

Irish Independent

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