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Six Nations: Ireland have Best-laid plans

By Niall Crozier

Ireland captain Rory Best has a pretty good idea of what to expect this evening at Twickenham when he packs down against Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole (kick-off 5pm).

Wearing the colours of Ulster he faced England hooker Hartley in last season's Heineken Cup quarter-final date with Northampton Saints in Milton Keynes.

And already this season at club level he has encountered Leicester tight-head Cole twice as a result of Ulster having gone head-to-head with the Tigers in Europe.

Add the experience of having come face-to-face with the pair at the Aviva Stadium in the final match of last season's RBS 6 Nations Championship and again in August's pre-World Cup warm-up in which Hartley made his entrance from the bench and you can see that they have met often enough in the past 12 months to know one another reasonably well.

Best — who today earns his 59th cap, surpassing Keith Wood's record for appearances as Ireland's hooker — is far too discreet to divulge what exactly goes on when English and Irish front row warriors lock horns.

But he is willing to admit that he rates Hartley as an opponent. There may not be a whole lot of love between the two, but at least there is acceptance of one another's ability.

“He's obviously a quality player, first off in the scrum where he's very abrasive,” Best says.

“Any team he's involved in usually has a very good scrum; Northampton pride themselves on it, and England's scrum did well against France in Paris last weekend.

“It's always a great challenge to be up against an opponent like that, because you want to play against best in the position and in terms of scrums, he's one of best hookers up there.

“You always know that if something goes wrong he'll punish you.”

Highlighting the emphasis England place on their scrum, Best also made passing reference to Cole's role at number three.

“I've played against him this season,” is his non-committal comment.

At that Ireland's hooker moved on quickly to explain how the English attempt to maximise the strength of their front five when it comes to scrum-time.

“Go forward teams tend to stand up,” he notes.

“They'll go high if you allow them to do it.

“Their way, their style is to power up and through, so obviously we'll be looking to keep the scrum down.

“Our scrum is all about staying down and square and trying to win it as a technical contest.”

He knows Ireland must produce their best performance of the series if they are to maintain their excellent record against the English — victories in seven of the past eight championship meetings including three of the last four trips to Twickenham.

As for referencing last week’s win over Scotland, the current Ireland captain underlines his belief that a mere repetition of last weekend's display against Andy Robinson's under-achievers will not suffice tomorrow.

“We produced a very good performance last weekend and I'm sure we'll be very much buoyed by that,” he said.

“But we have to improve and take it on again,” he says.

He has faith in this Irish side to move up a level, and in the preparations designed to accommodate that.

“We have a lot of confidence in own ability and we always do our homework on England because we know how important it is to get own game right,” he explains.

Games against England always have an extra edge and the fact that this one is being played on St Patrick's Day will do nothing to blunt that notion.

Best does not run scared of that fact; indeed, he thinks the passion engendered by this particular rivalry can be put to some good very use.

“In international rugby a little bit of emotion can be a good thing as long doesn't consume you,” he suggests.

“If you go in with a game-plan and in a clear enough mind, that little bit of emotion can allow you to go to places you didn't think your body could go.”

Like right into the faces of Messrs Hartley and Cole, hopefully emerging the victor in this personal confrontation within the bigger war.

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