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Chris Henry: What makes Rory Best so special and who should follow in his footsteps as Ulster's captain



Glory days: Rory Best and I lift the Six Nations crown in 2014

Glory days: Rory Best and I lift the Six Nations crown in 2014

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Glory days: Rory Best and I lift the Six Nations crown in 2014

I played with some great leaders during my time but when I look back on my career, be it with Ulster or Ireland, I think of Rory Best as my captain.

In rugby terms, we started off in the same boat, following in the footsteps of elder siblings, and it was through him playing Ulster Schools with my brother John that I first met Rory.

The squad were due to go out in Belfast one night and because Rory lived out in the sticks, he was at ours beforehand so he could head in with John. Having dropped in just in time to witness a battle royale at the Henry dinner table, Rory's first impression of me was of a chubby kid fighting his family for chips.

Although it must be said Rory wasn't shy about getting stuck into the middle of it himself, I doubt he'd ever have thought then that we'd go on to have so many great days together in white and green jerseys.

His has been one of the great Ulster and Ireland careers and, no matter what happens for the rest of this season, and indeed at the World Cup in Japan, he retires with a CV that few can match.

Four Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams, one of them as skipper, and of course captaining the side to historic first wins over the All Blacks and in South Africa.

It's funny to think now that back when he stepped up to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Paul O'Connell as Ireland skipper that there were some who questioned the decision, thinking that maybe the likes of Peter O'Mahony or Johnny Sexton would have been better choices.

I think it's fair to say Rory has always had a knack for proving his doubters wrong and certainly a big part of that comes from his determination, his competitive spirit. His throwing at the line-out, for example, was something that got criticism, but the hours he put in to make sure he was in a position to succeed, even having a specialist machine installed in his garden, should be an example to anyone looking to make it in the game of the commitment required.

As much as anything though, what makes Rory special is that he's a born leader. When you have senior player meetings there would maybe be five or six of you in the room, but whenever Rory speaks there's never so much as a stirring anywhere else around the table.

He's someone who gets the best out of those around him and every decision he makes is geared towards driving on the collective. As much as he's a great speaker, he's not someone who shouts for the sake of it, and a lot of what he provides I suppose could be called standard setting. It's maybe not man of the match stuff every week, but the top-end players never drop below a certain level and neither does Rory.

I don't think there's anyone who has done more to help Ulster towards where they need to be. He'd be the first to say he's got a massive amount out of rugby but he's given so much to the cause too and that's something I think will be felt for years to come.

He has always taken it upon himself to mentor the younger players coming behind him, especially the forwards. I think Stephen Ferris was probably the first and I got the benefit of it myself in the early years of my career too.

Just as he brought me on then, he's done the same most recently for Iain Henderson. You see them together all the time. Maybe as you're coming into training you'll look out in the field and see Iain standing on a box with Rory throwing to him, grabbing an extra 45 minutes of line-out practice here and there, but I'm sure just showing him what was required to be an Ulster player, an Ireland player and ultimately a Lion was invaluable.

Looking at that relationship now of the mentor and the mentored, it's nice to think that Rory has almost prepared his successor, because for me Henderson has to be the next captain of Ulster. He's matured so much not just as a player but as a person in these last few seasons.

You can see it on the pitch but also in interviews and the like too.

He's not a goofy kid any more, he's a dominant force in the game. If he stays fit, I see no reason why he can't lead Ulster for just as long and just as well as Rory has down the years.

Ulster will have everything geared towards Connacht crunch

When I was in the middle of what I'd say were the peak years of my career, probably ages 28 through 31, I would have felt like I could go a month without a game and not really miss a beat.

In those seasons, rust wouldn't have been a concern at all, even if there were times earlier and later in my playing days when I liked to have a game or two under my belt in order to feel confident about really hitting my straps in time for a big day like Ulster will have next weekend.

But everybody is different and that will be the challenge for the Ulster coaches this week. Obviously, while any time you play Leinster at home is important, there's nothing more than pride riding on this Saturday's game and the side will be doing whatever it takes to maximise their chances of success against Connacht in the Guinness PRO14 quarter-finals just seven days later.

As such, if anyone is carrying a knock then they'll obviously sit this one out in the hope of being right a week later. That's a no-brainer even if you're talking about players not as central to Ulster's silverware hopes as Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale.

Then there's players like Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall and Jordi Murphy. At different times this year, they're all guys who at points have shown they can be plugged straight back in without any fears of their performances dipping. It would be no surprise to see them on the sidelines for this one, knowing that they'll be ready to go for Connacht.

Ultimately at this stage of the season, Dan McFarland and his team will know the players so well that I'd imagine they'll have a good sense of who could do with an extra bit of time on the pitch to hit their peak in time for the big games to come.

Given their European adventures last weekend, Leinster will rotate heavily regardless of what the hosts put out, but for all the good work Ulster have done this season, they'll know it's next week's inter-pro that really counts.

Huge boost for Leinster to see Sexton fire again

Even without Ulster in action last week, it was still a great weekend of rugby, and after six months of European competition I don't think there's any doubt that what we've been left with are the two best sides preparing to go head-to-head.

For Leinster and Saracens, it feels as if the machine just keeps rolling on.

With Ulster having come so close to beating the champions last month, there was always going to be a sense of what if for all of us in the province, but that game will have given Toulouse real hope as well.

We are, after all, talking about a team who booked their place in the last-four thanks to a win over Racing with 14 men for most of the match.

And yet Leinster controlled things so well, a real professional performance where, after a few months of looking somewhat ragged, the big names were firing once again.

One moment for me that probably summed up the transformation was the sight of Johnny Sexton not reacting to the French giving him a bit of a shove on the sideline.

Think back to the Munster game at Christmas, or during the Six Nations, and it's no wonder that opponents are still trying to get under his skin, but it can only bode well for Leinster that his response was a man of the match award.

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