Rory Best primed to rock South Africa
Tewlve months ago Rory Best was recovering from career-saving neck surgery and wondering if he would ever again play rugby at the same level.
Now Ulster’s fully-restored captain is ready to answer Ireland’s call to arms against World Cup holders South Africa in Saturday afternoon’s Guinness Autumn Series curtain-raiser.
With that being the first international rugby match to be played at the magnificent new Aviva Stadium, Best is looking forward to involvement in what will be a historic occasion.
He has of course played on the international stage since undergoing surgery in the summer of 2009, for having at first been told that he might miss all of last season he defied logic, surpassed all expectations and made a nonsense of the forecasts by turning out for Ireland in each of last season’s RBS 6 Nations matches, coming off the bench to replace Jerry Flannery against Italy and France before completing three full 80-minute shifts against England, Wales and Scotland which the Munster man missed through suspension.
With his rival currently sidelined again, this time through injury, 39 times-capped Best has a chance to nail down the position.
“It’s a good opportunity,” he says, downplaying things in typical fashion.
“I think I’ve been playing quite well for Ulster and that’s really all you can do — try to play well for your club in the hope that’s enough.”
Having played with BJ Botha by his side and Johann Muller pushing from behind he knows a little of what to expect of Springbok tight five forwards.
“South Africa are a top team, there’s no doubt about that,” he added. “They’re World champions and they won the last Test series against the Lions so they’re a quality outfit.
“But this is a fresh test for them — and for Ireland. Nobody really knows what the atmosphere in the new stadium is going to be like. It’s the first rugby international there, of course, so it’s going to be a big occasion,” said Best who has no doubt that it will be a memorable sporting occasion.
“The atmosphere is good wherever Ireland play. We had it at the old Lansdowne Road and we had it at Croke Park. Basically, wherever the Irish fans cram in, I think it’s fair to say that there will be a fair bit of noise.
“That’s something we’re very much looking forward to. It’s a new home, a new state-of-the-art stadium and hopefully this will mark the start of a great new chapter of Irish rugby success. We’re all looking forward to that.”
Highlighting the enormity of the challenge ahead — South Africa, Samoa, the All Blacks and Argentina in successive weekends — he admitted Ireland should know quite a bit more about themselves by the time the Guinness Series ends.
“The Springboks are ranked two in the world at the moment, New Zealand are ranked one and while Argentina may have slipped a wee bit recently, they finished third in the last World Cup so they’re obviously a very strong outfit, too,” said Best.
“So it’s a very tough programme and even when it’s over I don’t think we’ll have all the answers. But certainly we’ll know the areas where we’re potentially weak and the ones where we’re potentially strong.
“You can only know that by testing yourself against the best.”
Last season’s RBS 6 Nations ended disappointingly, with Ireland’s unexpected Croke Park defeat by Scotland denying them another Triple Crown.
Their earlier reversal against the French in Paris having put paid of any idea of back-to-back Grand Slams and the disappointing summer tour on which they lost to New Zealand and Australia was undertaken by a party minus a number of key players, Best included.
So how easy or difficult is it to gel together as a team after a gap like that?
“If you look at the Irish side, the core of it has been together now for quite a while although there have been bits and pieces added over the past five or six years,” added the Ulster skipper.
“But the core has been consistent and when you’re bringing the same players back together time and time again it means the bedding in period is a lot shorter.
“Everybody knows each other very well at this stage so that helps us gel fairly quickly.”
But although he has long been involved, forget any notion of him having become complacent. International recognition continues to be a huge turn-on; there is no hint of Best having become blasé.
“The idea of being one of the 15 best players in the country is a huge motivation,” he said.
“If ever you get to the point where that doesn’t give you a buzz it’s probably time to forget it,” he said.
He is not even close to that at this stage.