Six Nations: Green the only colour that matters for Ulster star Best
Rory Best will be surrounded by eight Leinstermen and six from Munster when he lines out for Ireland tomorrow afternoon.
As the only Ulster player in the 15 Irish starters, Poyntzpass’s most famous son — now resident in Portadown — could be forgiven for feeling a tad isolated.
Forget that; Best has no such worries or misgivings, a point he made forcibly when I chatted to him earlier this week. He takes heart and encouragement from the fact that it’s very much a case of all Irishmen together.
“Once you finish that European Cup stage in January you come together as an Irish squad,” was his explanation of the emotional switch and mindset change Leinster, Munster and Ulster players are required to make each January.
The ‘four proud provinces’ line, a la Phil Coulter’s ‘Ireland’s Call’.
“Once we get on that field it’s a case of 15 men in green jerseys — and when the subs come on, that doesn’t change.
“Certainly that’s the way I was brought up and certainly that’s how this squad is.
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re from; you have to adapt to be able to play with other people. With Geordan (Murphy) and Tommy (Bowe) being injured that means this squad is drawn from the four provinces.
“We all know each other very well, which makes the transition from club to country a lot easier.”
And his description of what it means to be selected?
“If you’re fortunate enough to be named in the starting line-up then you know you’re in what is reckoned to the best 15 Irish players available,” he replies.
With a dozen players unavailable through injury, the negative take on that situation would be to dwell on those absentees.
But Best sees positives in that Ireland now get an accurate measure of themselves. With this being a World Cup year, the timing could prove to be very beneficial.
“In many ways it’s probably not a bad thing to test our strength. I have a lot of faith in the depth of that squad.”
“I think it’s a quality 15 and bench that Ireland have put out, with 10-12 players to come back in,” Best reckons. Put like that it is indeed an impressive 30-plus panel from which to choose.
One of the changes forced on Ireland by the unavailability of Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney has seen Leinster’s Luke Fitzgerald named at full-back for tomorrow’s Championship opener against the Italians.
The stand-in number 15 has a big fan and advocate in club colleague and Ireland captain, Brian O’Driscoll, who has no doubt as to Fitzgerald’s ability to rise to the challenge.
O’Driscoll has been excited to witness his 23-year-old club mate’s hunger, desire and skill in training this week.
“When he’s really booming with confidence he’s a very, very dangerous player. Both as an attacking player but as a strategic player as well, he can mix his game well at full-back,” O’Driscoll said.
Asked what he, as captain, would advise Fitzgerald to do when he gets out on the Stadio Flaminio pitch tomorrow, O’Driscoll said: “I suppose like anyone who hasn’t played a huge amount of rugby over the last couple of months, you just encourage him to do the simple things well and not try and do the amazing.
“That will eventually come as the game unfolds.”
He will urge Fitzgerald “to continue doing what he’s done, both provincially and internationally, any time he’s been in the jersey.”
“He knows himself what’s expected of him, and I don’t envisage any issues but he’s certainly a pleasure to play with from an attacking point of view, because he has that innate ability to break tackles and offload,” O’Driscoll enthuses.
And he himself could well be a beneficiary, for as he puts it: “Whenever you can get a second touch, having given him a pass, it gives yourself an opportunity — or it gives the rest of the team an opportunity — to continue an attacking play.”