Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Why Rory Best must still believe in Lions dream

Rory Best still has a good chance of getting called up for the Lions tour to Australia
Rory Best still has a good chance of getting called up for the Lions tour to Australia

 Hang in there: Rory Best still has a good chance of getting called up for the Lions tour to AustraliaThe dust may be settling on the British and Irish Lions selection but I would be amazed if the 37 names that board the plane are exactly the same as the ones announced last week.

Moreover, the squad that returns from Australia will have a few extra travellers. In short, there will be further heartbreak and joy for players in and currently outside that Lions party.

There has been plenty of vocal support for Rory Best in the last seven days and rightly so. Yet he still has a strong chance and will know that he needs to stay in top form and keep training as if he is boarding that plane.

The fact that Ulster have closed out the league means that he will have at least one, and hopefully two, more opportunities to keep the momentum going.

Where were you when? I can remember it like it was yesterday, like a JFK moment.

Twelve years ago, the 2001 squad was made up of 32 players, five short of this year’s 37 and plenty short of Clive Woodward’s 44 man squad in New Zealand in 2005. It included most of England’s 2003 World Cup winning team.

I knew that I was close, but realistically there were better players ahead of me.

The Six Nations had been suspended due to foot and mouth disease and Celtic League rugby was seriously affected.

My lifeline came through club rugby — Dungannon flying high and closing in on an All-Ireland title, peppered with Ulster players, and scoring tries for fun. It kept me fit and fresh.

The Lions selectors flew over at the start of April to watch a specially organised match between the top 30 players in Ireland.

It didn’t have to be said. We all knew it. They were there for a reason.

While Denis Hickie laboured against Munster’s underrated Anthony Horgan, I almost had the perfect match including scoring a try and creating another.

When the announcement came at 11am on that Tuesday morning I was at training. Highly unlikely to make the lean squad, my real aim was to get the nod for the standby list, also a highly competitive process. Then you just play the odds with Lady Luck.

As I pounded out intervals on the running machine I can remember staring at the ticking hands of the clock in the gym.

The rest of the Ulster squad sensed my preoccupation and as ever enjoyed this unique opportunity to wind me up. “Not long now TBone, first name on the page TBone.”

Seconds before 11am, the intercom came on in the gym — “Can Tyrone Howe please come to reception to pick up a message?”

I knew it was a wind-up, but Mr Gullible got the better of me. I couldn’t help myself — wiping the sweat away and stepping off the machine, the boys watched me leave the gym for my date with destiny.

Of course when I got there the receptionist told me there wasn’t a message and that the boys had got her to do it — Andy Ward to be precise. Oh, how funny it was and oh how they laughed.

By the time I got back to the gym, the names were playing continuously on Sky Sports and mine was most definitely not there.

Nonetheless, those 80 minutes in Thomond Park had not been wasted. In fact, they had been definitive in getting me ahead of Denis Hickie on the standby list.

Rory’s form for Ulster has been of a consistently high standard and he returned after the Six Nations to a man of the match performance against Leinster.

If he has been dealt a poor hand as a result of Ireland’s poor showing, then he has made some big statements since then.

I expect Rory has received the letter, inviting you to be on the standby list should injury strike a player.

I can remember sitting beside John Hayes on the way to play Romania. He too received a letter and we giggled like nervous schoolboys at the chances of one of us getting the call to travel to Oz, which I did.

The message is clear — all is not lost and should that phone call come you will hear the cheers all the way from Rifle Park, the home of Banbridge, Rory’s club.