'He deserves praise for his durability' - Ken Owens relishing clash with Rory Best
Wales hooker Ken Owens has described Ireland captain Rory Best as "a great player" ahead of Saturday's NatWest 6 Nations clash in Dublin.
The rival front-row forwards, colleagues on last summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, are set to be key performers during an intriguing Aviva Stadium encounter.
Victory for Wales would end Ireland's Grand Slam hopes and keep alive their own title chances, while an Irish win would increase the likelihood of a championship showdown against England at Twickenham on March 17.
"I've played against Rory a lot over the years, and he is a quality player," Owens said. "He has won a lot of Test caps, he's played more than 200 times for Ulster and he's been a mainstay of the Irish pack as a quality operator.
"It's always a tough game playing against him because he is that good. He deserves praise for his durability, and he has adapted to stay at the top of the game for so long.
"It is a huge credit to him, and we've always got on well and had that mutual respect even before the Lions tour.
"On the tour, seeing how he conducted himself and led that midweek team in the last couple of weeks showed what a player he is. He's a great player."
Wales are just three points off the Six Nations pace, despite losing to England last time out, and have home games against Italy and France to come next month.
"The bonus points system has seen us pick up two on the opening two weekends," Owens added. "Before, if you lost one game it was very difficult to pull the points back because you could not pick up extra ones. We have to win the next game and keep winning, but bonus points have been crucial for us."
Owens and his many Scarlets team-mates in the Wales squad have fond recent memories of the Aviva Stadium, given that the Llanelli-based region crushed Munster 46-22 there to be crowned PRO12 champions last season a week after defeating Leinster, also in Dublin.
The 31-year-old missed both games because of injury, but he said: "I was disappointed to miss the final, and the way we won it so convincingly was massive for us. I hope we get another good day there in a Wales jersey, because we have had some success there in the last couple of years.
"We were flying off with the Lions the next morning. Because I did not play, I was put in charge of making sure our other two Lions were on time and present and correct, which happened.
"The younger players like to go out, and the older ones tend to stay in the hotel. We did enjoy it. With so many players going on tour with Wales and Scotland, we did not have the night we expected, but we had a couple of beers and enjoyed it."
And there will be Lions reunions all over the pitch on Saturday when the fierce Celtic rivals go head to head.
"There is a mutual respect," Owens added. "You do have a bit of fun and banter, but the intensity of Test match rugby does not allow you to always get your words out as you would like. You concentrate on your own job and responsibilities without winding each other up."