Ulster captain Best faces test from talented young crop
Rory Best has had to scrap for all of what he has achieved in rugby.
Not only have opposing front-row forwards provided hard and uncompromising competition; so too have squad colleagues intent on wearing the number two jersey.
Within the Ulster set-up he has had to fend off Nigel Brady and Liverpool-born Andi Kyriacou.
And now there is another good young ’un coming through, with Ireland U20 captain Niall Annett, the former Methodist College student, making big strides.
It’s an on-going battle, then.
At international level Best and Munster’s Jerry Flannery have vied for supremacy as first-choice Irish hooker since both made their debuts in the autumn of 2005.
At this stage of their respective careers Best is in the better position, for, despite being four years Flannery’s junior — 28 compared to 32 — the Ulsterman shades the honours in terms of caps won. Currently he has 42, six more than his rival.
But now there is a major threat looming in the form of 24-year-old Sean Cronin, who has just signed a two-year contract which will see him become a Leinster player this summer.
A former Ireland Schools representative, Limerick-born Cronin played for Shannon in the AIB League and for his native province.
But with Flannery blocking his progress and leaving him unable to get game time in the red of Munster, Cronin joined Connacht in 2008.
He has been capped for Ireland at every level — schools, U19, U21 and ‘A’ (the Wolfhounds) — winning his first senior cap against Fiji in the RDS in November 2009, on the same day as Jonathan Sexton and Sean O’Brien made their international bows.
Cronin’s first start as a full international came when he lined out against New Zealand in the 2010 Summer Series, a tour on which he also was in the starting line-up against Australia.
Best was injured and missed that trek to the southern hemisphere. And in this game, as he knows only too well, others quickly step forward to fill any gaps or vacancies. Cronin also played three of the four games in the recent Guinness series — against Samoa, the All Blacks and Argentina — and thus far has featured seven times for Ireland. And with injured-again Flannery out of contention for a place in the starting line-up or on the bench against Italy in Rome on February 5, Cronin’s inclusion in one or other of those roles is assured.
Commenting on his decision to join Leinster in the coming summer, Cronin said: “I believe that with the exciting players in |the squad, the future looks |bright.
“Hopefully I can establish myself in the squad when I join up in a few months’ time.”
Bath are believed to be trying to sign Ulster lock Ryan Caldwell.
Caldwell, 26, has emerged as a target for the Aviva Premiership club and a source at the Rec has confirmed that Bath hope to make at least two signings as early as next week.
The possibility of twice-capped Caldwell joining the West Country outfit has been leaked on Twitter and certainly with England’s Danny Grewcock due to retire at the end of the season there will be a vacancy for at least one robust second row forward.
Since the arrival of Johann Muller and Tim Barker last summer, 78 Ulster caps winner Caldwell, who captained RBAI to the Northern Bank Schools’ Cup in 2003, has struggled to get game time with Ulster.
This season he played for 18 minutes against Aironi in the Magners League meeting in Viadana, followed by two full-match outings against Edinburgh and Connacht, all in September.
Since then, his only appearance was against Munster in the New Year’s Day defeat at Thomond Park, so a move is likely to appeal to him.