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Best is on mission to repay Schmidt's faith

 

By Jonathan Bradley

While Rory Best cherishes each and every opportunity to lead Ireland, captaining the side against the Springboks this evening (5.30pm kick-off) may carry that little bit of extra significance.

Revered in Ulster, and respected throughout the game, the Banbridge clubman was a natural choice to succeed Paul O'Connell when the lock stepped away from the international scene following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and few can argue with his record since.

While there was a rocky start in the transitional 2016 Six Nations, Best has been central to a pair of history-making feats - a first ever win over the All Blacks in Chicago last year coming hot on the heels of a maiden victory on South African soil.

His performances during last season's Six Nations, despite Ireland being below par after a slow start in Scotland, earned him a spot on a second Lions tour, yet there remained a chance that someone else could have been standing opposite Eben Etzebeth for the pre-match coin toss this evening.

Best injured a hamstring in training midway through September, with the initial prognosis indicating he would be out for up to six weeks.

A famously fast healer, the 35-year-old was back in four and has played twice for Ulster since to prove his fitness for the November campaign.

Having had to overcome injury, and of course the presence of a Lions Test captain among the squad in Peter O'Mahony, Best admitted it was another proud moment when Joe Schmidt confirmed the hooker would again captain the side this season.

"To be fair to Joe, there's not many back doors, if he was looking to change, he would have made the change," said Best.

"He said early enough in one of the summer camps that as long as I'd be happy to continue I'd be captain again and we'd reassess at the end of the season depending on where we were and how we felt and what was going on.

"So I suppose that's something for the end of the season. But it was nice to be asked again.

"I think when you're in that position and captaining the country you never like to assume anything, so it was good when Joe said, 'We'd like you to do it again for this season'.

"It gave me the confidence that he liked what I was doing, I was doing a good job.

"Ultimately when you're asked to captain a side, one of the hardest things is to keep sticking to what you're doing. You feel you need to do something different. I suppose over the last couple of years, I've learnt that and I feel a lot more comfortable in that role.

"I enjoy doing it and it was good to be asked to do it again."

While Best knows he can't keep defying Father Time forever, discussions about whether he can go on until the 2019 World Cup in Japan, by which stage he will be 37, are for another day.

"I understand why people want to talk about my age. It's not really something I'm interested in," he said.

"Joe asked me to captain the side again for this season and I'm very happy to do it.

"The hamstring injury can happen to anyone at any time.

"If anything, for me, it is probably a sign I'm getting faster if I'm getting it at this stage.

"I can understand why people want to have the debate. For me, when Joe asked me, that was it - dead and buried.

"If at any time I feel I'm not playing well enough to be the captain or I feel that things are starting to let me down, you step forward and you say, 'I've had enough'.

"But I will be a long, long time retired when I eventually do it.

"You're not really sure what's around the corner. For us, it's a cliché and you're probably bored hearing it, but it's about the game tomorrow.

"As a captain, get through this block and then get through the Six Nations and we'll reassess. But a side of the quality of South Africa and, if you want to talk about World Cups, a side you could potentially meet in the World Cup.

"It's important for us to gel quickly and to put in a performance in what's going to be a massive test."

Somewhat surprisingly, this is just the sixth time Best will have faced the Springboks, and three of those came in 2016, but he is still quick to dismiss the idea that the bunch who have pitched up in Dublin are not a vintage class.

"I think it's a good South Africa team, it definitely is," he said. "They've come a long way from the team we played a year ago last June.

"If you think of vintage South Africa teams and these big forwards getting across the gainline and a big-kicking out-half, these guys have those forwards and an out-half that can kick but have more. The depth they play at and the offloads, that makes them a handful."

Bradley's Verdict

While the Lions tour means Ireland haven't played with anything like a full complement of players since March, Joe Schmidt's men have had good time together to prepare for this visit from the Springboks. With Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray able to control the game behind a formidable pack, the hosts should win.

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