It was a relieved Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin who contacted me yesterday morning to confirm: “I’ve had no word from Declan (Kidney) so Rory can play.”
Rory Best’s inclusion in tonight’s Ulster starting line-up confirms his importance to rugby in Ulster and Ireland at this moment and highlights the IRFU’s dilemma in hoping that he comes through the Ravenhill scrap against Newport Gwent Dragons unscathed.
With Munster’s Jerry Flannery banned for six weeks following his wild kick at French winger Alexis Palisson in last weekend’s Stade de France defeat, Kidney is dependent on Best being able to pack down in the middle of the Irish front row for next weekend’s trip to Twickenham and the home dates with Wales and Scotland on March 13 and March 20.
Closer to home his inclusion in the Ulster team for the first time this season has given the whole squad an important psychological boost ahead of what McLaughlin has called “a vital match for us”.
With Ireland dependent on him and Ulster hoping their inspirational hooker can help them achieve the goal of a Magners League top four spot leading to inclusion in the play-offs, the responsibility now resting on Best’s broad shoulders is immense.
McLaughlin’s delight in being able to name him in yesterday’s lunchtime announcement of tonight’s team was obvious. It came as a relief, too, since he had known that in the event of a call from Dublin 4 ordering him not to include Best lest his number one number two picked up an injury, he would be forced to comply and omit the hooker for tonight’s crucial match.
Initially when his neck injury was diagnosed it was reckoned Best would miss the entire season. His return to the fray in the colours of Banbridge on January 23 was far ahead of schedule and it drew words of admiration and praise from Kidney and McLaughlin, both of whom lauded his courage and commitment in getting himself fit.
He is one of two changes to the front row trio who faced Bath at The Rec in Ulster’s last outing four weeks ago. Those are Best for Nigel Brady and Bryan Young for Tom Court on the loosehead side, the burly Australian having picked up an injury on Irish duty in Paris last weekend.
Thus, of the foremost three who began against Bath in the Heineken Cup, BJ Botha is the sole survivor.
Now established lock partners Dan Tuohy and Ed O’Donoghue continue in tandem, but with Stephen Ferris - the only Irish international not available to Ulster this week — another absentee, young Thomas Anderson starts on the blindside flank.
Openside David Pollock and No 8 Chris Henry, who has retained the captaincy despite Best’s recall, complete the back row.
Behind the scrum it’s a vote of confidence for six of the seven, the exception being Ian Humphreys who returns at fly-half, that job having been done by Niall O’Connor last time out.
Nigel Brady and Declan Fitzpatrick are the replacements at hooker and prop, with Ryan Caldwell and fit-again Robbie Diack providing the engine room and loose forward bench back-up.
Ian Porter, Ian Whitten and Timoci Nagusa cover half-back, midfield and the back three.
McLaughlin is relishing the opportunity to avenge his side’s |23-6 pounding by the Welsh side back on September 6.
He said: “When we played them at Rodney Parade at the start of the season, they out-muscled us. They beat us around the contact area, so we have a few scores to settle. I'm hopeful we can come out and show how much we've progressed.”