Best ready to put his neck on the line again for Ireland
Rory Best’s remarkable recovery from being sidelined with a serious neck injury and not expected to play at all in 2009/10 to a point where now he is odds on to be Ireland’s hooker against England at Twickenham is the season’s most positive story.
His late January return to AIB League Division Three action in the colours of Banbridge — seven months ahead of schedule — was thought to be miraculous enough.
But even that was eclipsed by his introduction to the international fray at Ireland A level, followed by two appearances as a post-interval replacement for Jerry Flannery in the RBS 6 Nations Championship matches against Italy and France.
Explaining his progress, he admitted: “When you’re going to scrum at the top level, you’re always going to be a bit unsure.
“I had a bit of a stepping stone up through Banbridge and Ireland A to Ireland, which put a bit of progression into it.
“I’m happy now that I’ve played against two of the best scrums in world rugby and I’ve come through relatively unscathed.”
This weekend could see him line out for Ulster.
Or maybe not, for following Flannery’s post-match citing by the French and Best’s resultant emergence as a hugely important figure in the bigger IRFU picture, Ireland may insist that he is not risked in Friday night’s Magners League clash with Newport Gwent Dragons at Ravenhill.
Against that they must weigh up his lack of time on the pitch.
The choice? Risk injury to the Irish hooker or else send him out to face the English front row with his only on-field time since last summer being a 55-minute run in the third tier of the AIB League, half a match for Ireland A and two appearances of 25 and 20 minutes duration as a replacement for the Irish seniors.
Having been Ulster’s non-playing captain this season — despite his injury-enforced absence he retained the title of skipper — Best’s inclusion on Friday night would mean a lot to him and to the Ravenhill faithful.
When asked how he felt that one was likely to pan out, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin said: “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Available if selected,” was Best’s diplomatic assessment.
“You have to concentrate on your own game. Something that I’ve learnt over the past eight months is that you never know when you’re going to get another opportunity to play,” he said.
“So it’s just about trying to do all you can, trying to be the best that you can be, going out there and coming off the pitch knowing that you’ve done everything, tried your best, given your all and haven’t been happy just to sit in your comfort zone.
“Maybe I’ve been guilty of that. But now it’s about something a wee bit more than that for me.
“For example, in the past three or four games I’ve probably had more ball in hand than in the whole of last season. That’s a new dimension and another string in the bow, so I’m pleased.”
Commenting on the Dragons game, coach Brian McLaughlin said: “It is great to get back to Magners League rugby.
“This is a really big game for us, and we are looking forward to playing again at Ravenhill, in-front of our fantastic home support. This will be our first fixture since our away win in Bath, at the end of January, so we will have to be very focused and play at our very best to beat this quality Dragons side.
“The supporters in Bath were magnificent that day. They lifted us, and kept us going, especially in the final 20 minutes, when we were under huge pressure.
“All of us really appreciated that and hope that we get the same again, come Friday night.
“The Dragons got one over on us in the first game of the season, in Wales, so we owe them one.”
We must keep the ball in hand and play some strong running rugby. The players have been training hard over the Six Nations break and are eager to get a good match under their belts; it will be a great game.”
Ulster squad: Forwards: Tom Court, Bryan Young, BJ Botha, Declan Fitzpatrick, Nigel Brady, Rory Best, Andi Kyriacou, Ryan Caldwell, Dan Tuohy, Ed O'Donoghue, Willie Faloon, David Pollock, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Thomas Anderson.
Backs: Isaac Boss, Cillian Willis, Paul Marshall, Ian Porter, Ian Humphreys, Niall O'Connor, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Ian Whitten, Simon Danielli, Timoci Nagusa, Andrew Trimble, Jamie Smith.