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Having to watch on as Ireland won in Australia has made me hungrier for glory, says Rory Best

Fine mentor: Ireland and Ulster star Rory Best with budding young players Cicely Blair (7) from Carrickfergus and Evan McIlvanna (8) from Newry at the Glenisk Kids' Rugby Training Camp at Stormont
Fine mentor: Ireland and Ulster star Rory Best with budding young players Cicely Blair (7) from Carrickfergus and Evan McIlvanna (8) from Newry at the Glenisk Kids' Rugby Training Camp at Stormont
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For Ireland captain Rory Best, the experience of a summer spent watching his team-mates in action halfway across the world is not one he'd care to repeat.

It’s little wonder given that, before the victorious tour of Australia back in June, the Ulster hooker had taken part in 44 of Joe Schmidt’s 55 games at the helm.

While there was a hamstring complaint that held him out of a pair of November internationals in 2014, and the eve of the match illness that struck before the meeting with Italy in the Six Nations of 2017, by and large when Ireland have played without him of late, it has been only for reasons of planned rest or Lions involvement.

Having been dogged by a hamstring complaint in the latter part of last season though, when the injury flared up in a training run shortly before the squad were due to depart for Down Under, Best was left on the sofa while his side secured an impressive series victory over the Wallabies.

Having been a central figure in the squad’s most memorable triumphs for well over a decade now, the man who turns 36 today found the role of spectator a strange adjustment.

“When you invest so much in a squad, that squad means so much to you,” he said after a morning spent coaching over 100 local children for Glenisk Kids’ Rugby Training Camp.

“You’ve achieved so much together and you just want to be a part of everything. When they’re struggling you want to be there to help, and when they’re succeeding you definitely want to be there for that too.

“I really enjoyed the Monday to Fridays actually, working with Chris McNicholl and Phil Glasgow and Kev Geary (in the S&C department). There was really just me in there, a few of the Ulster boys came back early to do some bits and pieces, but I was largely on my own.

“We’d train early and finish early so I had my afternoons to spend with the family...or play a bit of golf. It was really relaxing because there was no pressure to get back in time for a game like there usually would be, it was just a three week block and then going on holiday.

“But come Saturday mornings when the games kicked off, it was a different kettle of fish altogether.”

While Best believes now that he could have featured in the latter part of the series, it was decided that discretion was to be the better part of valour.

“It was all reasonably innocuous,” he said. “But especially having come off the Lions tour in pieces last year, I’ve had disrupted pre-seasons before and we were really conscious to not do that this time.

“The worry was that if we tried to push it in Australia and something went wrong, maybe it would be something more serious, it would be another pre-season gone. When it tightened up on a rehab run that was really what made the decision for us, it gave us no other option.”

Durability will be a key concern this season, not just for Best but for all of Ireland’s World Cup hopefuls with the opening game in Japan now only a little over 13 months away. As such, fans should again not expect to see much of the international contingent in the season’s early Guinness PRO14 rounds.

“From an Ireland point of view I haven’t missed many,” said Best of his avoidance of injury at an age most of his early contemporaries have hung up their boots.

“From an Ulster point of view they’d probably be saying I don’t play many, and certainly a few of the boys slag me about it.

“I’ve been really fortunate with injuries over the years but, when you get to my age, you really have to target the interpros, the European Cup, and get good leads into the autumn. Those are the big games that Ulster need to deliver on anyway. It’s about managing the minutes and managing the training load.

“The hamstring was all good at the end of the season ultimately but we don’t want to push it too hard and too fast.

“There’s an element from an IRFU point of view with all their players that they’ll look to get a run of games going into the autumn, and ultimately that will pair up with the big games where Ulster need you (most).”

Helpfully for his native province, where the injury bug has bitten especially hard in the backline this pre-season, hooker is one area there is admirable depth with Rob Herring having performed well out in Australia to cap off a strong season and John Andrew and Adam McBurney also vying for minutes.

“That’s the beauty for Ulster, that Rob Herring is there,” Best agreed. “There’s no pressure on me to play just to fill a hole, the pressure comes on me to play so that you don’t give a player like Rob too much of a head start, you’ll not reel him in.

“Just year on year, he’s getting better. The improvements he’s made since he came into our system, he’s made himself into an international-class hooker. I wish he could have waited a year or two to peak personally but that’s just me. No, it’s fantastic.

“It’s important he plays because looking at Ireland squad selection, it’s important he gets a chance to play and show what he can do.”

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