Rory Best finally set for Lions call-up
When Munster and Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery chipped a bone in his left elbow shortly before the Lions 2009 tour of South Africa, most felt Rory Best would get the call-up to fill vacancy.
Whether or not the Ulster ace himself actually felt that remains a matter of conjecture; he is far too astute and much too worldly-wise ever to be drawn into making comment on such matters.
But Best did not receive any such call. Instead the man contacted by Lions coach Ian McGeechan was Scotland’s Ross Ford.
Ever since that controversial decision by the man who was awarded a knighthood in the 2010 New Year’s honours list, Best has continued to press his case for recognition as a Lion.
To that end he has shown admirable commitment, his conviction being that rewards are dependent on the quality of the performances served up in the colours of those he is representing at that moment. “Never give less than 100 per cent,” is his motto.
To add very serious injury to insult of having been ignored by McGeechan, Best then found himself sidelined by a potentially career-threatening neck problem. But again he showed himself to be an incredibly tough man - mentally as well as physically – by making a remarkable recovery, well ahead of schedule, from an injury which had required surgery and appeared to have ruled him out for the whole of 2009-10.
But contrary to all expectations, he returned to action just ahead of that season’s Six Nations campaign, answering Ireland’s call at a time when they really needed him. Incredibly, having been written off just a short time earlier as unable to play any part in that 2010 series, he made a nonsense of those forecasts by appearing in all five matches – as a replacement for Flannery against Italy and France and then as a starter against England. Wales and Scotland.
He has been the number one number two ever since, having gone on to become the most capped Irish hooker of all time – currently he has 67 Test appearances to his credit, 47 of those as a starter – and has proven himself as a leader in captaining Ulster and Ireland.
Put bluntly, he is a model professional who takes the blows, real and figurative, on and off the pitch and just gets on with his life.
In the past couple of seasons he has been well up the queue of hookers for the forthcoming British and Irish Lions’ tour, although Ireland’s poor 2013 Six Nations cannot have helped his cause, or indeed that of any of his fellow-countrymen.
In contrast, Wales’s recovery following a disastrous start against Ireland will have done revitalised Richard Hibbard’s prospects no harm whatsoever, particularly with international colleagues Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones to the fore in the props’ pecking order. Having coached them as a unit, Warren Gatland may just be thinking about swapping the red shirts of Wales for those of the Lions and asking that trio to done them.
But Best is in a good place. He has a good personal record in direct opposition to England’s Dylan Hartley, whose disciplinary record is a huge disadvantage to him. And although converted centre Tom Youngs has done remarkably well since switching to the middle of the front row as recently as 2009, he does not have anything like the nous Best has accumulated in a lifetime in that key position. When it comes to Test-level experience, Best is the man.
Nor will Scotland’s Ford come back to haunt him a second time.
Hibbard is 29, Best is 30. The Ospreys hooker stands 6ft tall; his Ulster rival is a year older, an inch shorter and a few pounds lighter.
As a scrummager, Best is exactly that – the best. His breakdown play is exemplary, too, as is his discipline. And his tackle-count bears scrutiny alongside that of any front-five forward.
So is there a flaw? Yes, his line-out throwing. That is his Achilles heel.
Nevertheless, he will be on the plane to Australia, as will Ulster team-mate Tommy Bowe. It’s probably too much to hope for that Gatland – never frightened to give youth a fling - might include Craig Gilroy or Iain Henderson, too, but if not they will keep. There will be future Lions tours.