Rory Best's fired up to lead Ireland
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is one step closer to naming his new captain with Ulster's Rory Best among the leading candidates.
Schmidt held an overnight camp at Carton House on Sunday with players asked to suggest which of their team-mates will form the core leadership group going into the first Six Nations since Paul O'Connell's Test retirement.
While the decision on who will lead the team out at the Aviva against Wales on February 7 will stay with Schmidt, Ulster skipper Best is held in high esteem within the camp.
The 33-year-old says it would be an absolute privilege to succeed the legendary figure of O'Connell.
"Paul O'Connell is a talismanic leader and to follow him would be a massive honour," said Best.
"There is a group Joe will choose from and whoever does take over will have a massive task.
"To work alongside Joe Schmidt in a coach-captain relationship would be great."
The side's most capped hooker will likely not be around for the entire four-year World Cup cycle but could be seen as Schmidt's best short-term bet.
Jamie Heaslip has acted as vice-captain under Schmidt in the past, including at the World Cup, but it is increasingly thought that he is uncomfortable with some aspects of the role.
Well versed in both the media and corporate involvement of captaincy from his position with Ulster at the Kingspan, Best has no such qualms.
Like Best, Jonathan Sexton is another natural leader who has a close relationship with Schmidt.
The pair have won six trophies over the last five seasons in the blue of Leinster and green of Ireland while it was the out-half’s rousing speech that is often credited for inspiring the dramatic half-time turnaround in the 2011 Heineken Cup final.
Already the team’s central figure, there would be a worry that the captaincy may overburden the 30-year-old, while his post-World Cup form has not been of the usual standard.
Peter O’Mahony — as captain of Munster, an inspirational figure who leads by example and young enough to hold the role until Japan 2019 — may have been the perfect candidate to lead Ireland in the post-O’Connell era if not for the fact that he is still on the sidelines with injury.
Fitness concerns, although more of the long-term variety, would also seem to weaken the case of Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien.
With media commitments set to begin in the weeks before the Championship, the decision will be revealed before the end of the month.
Meanwhile, former Ulster coach Mark McCall’s Saracens squad will be boosted next season by the arrival of South African great Schalk Burger.
The 32-year-old, who is a former IRB World Player of the Year, has signed a two-year-deal with the London side who face Ulster in the Champions Cup next weekend.
The Stormers back-rower, who won the 2007 World Cup alongside Ruan Pienaar, will move to the Aviva Premiership after completing the Super Rugby season.
McCall insists Saracens — the only unbeaten team in Europe this season — have signed one of the sport’s outstanding players.
“Schalk is a Springbok legend and will add a huge amount of experience and quality to our young English forwards,” McCall said. “We have always talked about having the right blend of experience and youth in our squad, so to be able to add one of the world’s finest players to the group is extremely exciting news.
“By the beginning of next season we will have lost two highly experienced back row forwards in Ernst Joubert and Jacques Burger, so to have a player of Schalk’s calibre coming into the squad is fantastic news.”
McCall is not the only former Ulsterman eyeing an audacious transfer swoop.
Reports in France suggest that David Humphreys is close to bringing Clermont and Canada lock Jamie Cudmore to Gloucester.