Thursday 20 September 2018

Old Lions friends to become Best enemies in Slam bid

Ireland captain setting sights on fourth World Cup

Rory Best will win this 111th international cap at Twickenham but it’s the Grand Slam the Irish captain is more interested in. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Rory Best will win this 111th international cap at Twickenham but it’s the Grand Slam the Irish captain is more interested in. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Gavin Mairs

One of the most endearing and recurring features of a Lions tour is the improbable friendships that are forged on tour. For Rory Best, it was no different.

The Ireland captain, who has previously described himself as "a simple farmer from Poyntzpass", the small village in Co Armagh, wondered what he might have in common with the likes of James Haskell during last year's tour of New Zealand.

Yet eight months on and it is likely that Haskell's return to the England starting line-up to face Ireland at Twickenham will have been noted by Best with a smile.

Having missed out on a Test place on the Lions tour, Best admits that the friendships he forged with the likes of Haskell and his England team-mates Joe Marler and Dan Cole helped him get through the frustration and disappointment.

"The Lions tour can surprise you a bit," Best said. "Certainly somebody like Haskell. He was somebody that when you look at his social media account, you thought maybe he might be too much, but actually he is one of the best blokes I have met.

"I really, really enjoyed his company and we still keep in touch relatively regularly via text. It is the same as Joe. Joe comes across the pitch… well, with the haircuts and everything… but I got on well with him and Dan.

"That was the thing about that tour, there weren't many massive characters that had to have the attention on them. It was just a really good bunch of guys who were good fun to be around.

"There were times when we were all down on the tour and I would be rooming with 'Hendy' (Iain Henderson) and Joe and 'Colely' were sharing together and we would call into the room for a couple of hours and just chat. They were the sort of moments that got you through."

Those relationships will be put on hold as Ireland attempt to win what would only be their third Grand Slam.

Yet if Lions tours have surprised Best, there is no doubt that he has surprised himself too during an international career that began in 2005 and, remarkably, looks set to run to a fourth World Cup in Japan next year.

One of only two members of the squad along with full-back Rob Kearney who were part of the last Irish side to complete the clean sweep in 2009, the 35-year-old has a hugely impressive CV.

A victory for Ireland tomorrow would put Best alongside the rarefied company of Karl Mullen and Brian O'Driscoll as Ireland Grand Slam captains, having already led Ireland to their sole victory over the All Blacks in November 2016.

This championship has seen him become Ireland's most capped forward, having passed former captain Paul O'Connell's total of 108, and is now their third-most capped player of all time behind O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara. Best will win his 111th cap tomorrow.

In a new-look Ireland side acclaimed for the emergence of game-breaking new talent such as Jacob Stockdale, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour, Best is what Eddie Jones would describe as a "glue" player who keeps the side together.

Indeed Joe Schmidt, who appointed Best captain in 2016, backs the Ulsterman in a similarly loyal manner as Jones does Dylan Hartley.

Yet there have been times when Best's career could have stalled, either because of form or injury. Even now he struggles to take in his position in the Irish game.

"When you start out, you dream of playing once for Ireland," he said. "But to get to 100 caps and look around and see who you are there with, and to be surrounded by people like O'Gara, O'Driscoll, O'Connell and John Hayes is hard to take in.

"It is really flattering and an honour to be amongst them. To actually go ahead of some of them like John and Paulie is hard to believe. It is something I am immensely proud of."

If Best's lineout throwing has come under scrutiny along the years, he is renowned as a fearsome scrummager and in the latter half of his career, has reinvented himself as one of Ireland's most influential operators at the breakdown.

Given England's current breakdown problems, it appears that Haskell and Co could learn a lot from their Lions mate.

"There was a time a while ago when I was just going after everything and getting nothing and, because I was chasing things, I was always a second behind where I needed to be," added Best.

"So I felt I had to pick my battles and tried to teach myself to be more selective because you are obviously more useful on your feet.

"It is something I have played around with and worked on the technique by myself."

That combination of hard work and a streetwise attitude ensured Best has remained at the top for so long, while many of his peers have retired, as will be the case with Tommy Bowe at the end of the season.

All the way to a fourth World Cup? "I don't see anything in my performances or my preparation that suggests that it is not there," Best added. "I would be the first to say it if I felt it wasn't. I feel good and I know I will be a long time retired so I don't want to be sitting at home wishing that I was playing."

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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