Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Rory fully deserves to be on board the Lions' battle bus

British & Irish Lions Tour to Australia 2013
British & Irish Lions Squad Depart for Hong Kong, Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, London 27/5/2013
Rory Best
Mandatory Credit ?INPHO/Dan Sheridan
British & Irish Lions Tour to Australia 2013 British & Irish Lions Squad Depart for Hong Kong, Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, London 27/5/2013 Rory Best Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

How much sleep do you think Rory Best got last Saturday night? Part of it may have been the adrenalin of a final; it is always difficult to settle after a big game particularly when you have come so close to winning.

However, I expect any potential insomnia may have been caused even more by the events over in Twickenham that same day and the imminent ruling by Judge Jeff Blackett on Dylan Hartley's abuse of Wayne Barnes.

Most of us in the same position would find ourselves tortured by an endless and circuitous stream of questions – 'Will he, won't he? Will I, won't I?' – weighing up the chances of that elusive Lions call-up. What a contrast of emotions Ulster's hooker must have gone through in the last few weeks.

Somehow it does feel like justice has been done. Best's omission from the initial squad was met with incredulity.

This was no parochial feeling rather the reaction was felt and expressed well beyond the provincial borders of Ulster. Indeed, for many, the turnaround feels like poetic justice.

When Hartley (right) got the nod over Best, one of the key queries about the New Zealand-born English international was his temperament under pressure.

Under an expected torrent of Aussie sledging, how would he react? Would he give the Australians an easy target of abuse and maybe be the source of penalties?

In comparison, Rory Best is composure personified and the way in which he has conducted himself throughout the whole Lions selection process speaks volumes about the class of the man and the family from which he comes.

Without going into Hartley's offence too much, it is clear that it was wrong and that there is a line that cannot be crossed. That line is absolute.

However, his 11-week ban means nothing. There is no greater punishment that missing out on a Lions tour. Ask Alan Quinlan who suffered a similar fate having been punished for gouging four years ago. It will be an eternal regret. A Lions tour is the ultimate and to miss it hurts to the core.

In the last few weeks I have observed how history tells us that the departing squad is always a bit different. Moreover, fortune can smile on certain players on the standby list while others are fated to continue to watch from a distance.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief – Rory has made it onto the plane.

As someone who also got called out to the Lions twelve years ago as a replacement I know how Rory feels, but only to a certain extent and I am happy to confess that I envy him greatly.

I was called out with only five games left – I played in the first, benched in the second and then had a great seat for the three Tests.

There was no chance to make an impression. I was a peripheral player and a peripheral member of the squad. Yes, I have a red shirt somewhere at the bottom of a wardrobe or bag and I was on the greatest rugby trip of all, but my experience was incredibly limited. By travelling out on day one right at the start, Rory will get the whole Lions experience and, due to his position, be central in the day to day running of the team. His opportunity is massive – as one of three hookers, he has a genuine chance of being involved in the Test squad.

I also believe that once in this environment he will thrive and put himself in the frame for a starting Test position. It does not get any bigger than that.

Let us not forget that other Ulsterman who could well have us jumping for joy. Tommy Bowe is a big game player: his physical attributes and solid understanding of the Welsh style of play as well as a playing relationship with Jonny Sexton make him a frontrunner for a test spot.

He has got Lions experience under his belt and will be a 'go to' man for Warren Gatland. Tommy is also exactly the sort of character and personality you need in a big squad.

His laidback approach and affability make him an excellent tourist and someone who will mix well and help the popularity of the Lions concept.

Ulster provides two players who have genuine reason to have Test place ambitions and there is a realistic chance for a Series victory. History beckons and it could have not just one, but two red hands stamped on it.

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