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Getting Schmidt call is my dream come true, says Best

By Jonathan Bradley

When a missed call from Joe Schmidt first flashed up on the screen of Rory Best's phone, the wait to find out just what his national coach wanted must have seemed to last an eternity.

As Ireland's most capped hooker of all time returned the call, the stark contrast between the two possible outcomes of the moments ahead will not have been lost on a man who has endured a handful of lows to go with the highs of a stellar career.

As it was, the news was good and the coach who has guided Ireland to consecutive Six Nations titles informed Best that he would indeed succeed Paul O'Connell as captain for the upcoming Championship that begins against Wales on February 7.

Other candidates were numerous - Leinster trio Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Johnny Sexton were all mooted and could have made strong cases - but Best always appeared the most logical of selections.

Arguably Ireland's most consistent performer at a World Cup where he started four of five games, his age, 33, would only be an insurmountable obstacle to the captaincy bid if he was showing any signs of dipping standards.

As it is he remains, even in the final years of his playing days, an undisputed first choice in Schmidt's Test team.

Well used to the on, and importantly off, field demands of a captain from his years skippering Ulster, the Poyntzpass farmer's broad shoulders have often appeared perfectly suited to the mantle of leadership and he led the side temporarily on four previous occasions.

Still, Best said yesterday that he must be his own captain, not follow in the footsteps of the legends who have preceded him.

O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll have led Ireland for the majority of the last 14 years, a spell that has coincided with a Grand Slam, two further Six Nations titles and three triple crowns.

His style will differ, as did those of the two former Lions skippers, but there is no doubting his credentials.

As intrigue over O'Connell's successor reached fever pitch in recent weeks, Best's Ulster team mates spoke almost reverentially of their provincial leader's attributes.

Ruan Pienaar, the 88-times capped Springbok, said he had "all the qualities to be Irish captain" while Paddy Jackson described his half-time rallying call against Oyonnax a fortnight ago as "something pretty special to watch."

Just this week, when only Best was aware of Schmidt's decision, the former Portadown College pupil's long-term team mate Darren Cave hailed his captain for sticking with the province when big money offers were on the table from elsewhere.

"I think Rory has been one of the main reasons this club has sort of turned itself around from when I started playing," said the centre.

"We've signed well and certain people upstairs have done a good job and got good signings in but when things stopped going well sort of in 07/08, Rory had plenty of offers.

"Rory could have gone away and it would have been very easy but he didn't.

"He's been the one who the team was built around. He wasn't captain for a while with Johann (Muller) but he's always been the main man, the main leader.

"I think he'd be a fantastic captain for his country and on a personal level I've got a lot of time for him, I like him a lot. I think it would be a great honour for him and I hope he gets it."

While Schmidt is hardly one to deal in sentiment, there are many who will be pleased to see such an honour bestowed on Best.

With 89 international caps, there is a chance that fitness permitting he could become the first from this province to reach the century mark during the Autumn Internationals and he has been a fine servant for both Ulster and Ireland.

His Test debut came in 2005 against the All Blacks, a side he would take on again eight years later when a try and battling through a broken arm weren't enough for a win but enhanced his reputation as a most determined of competitors.

His journey to Irish captain has, however, not always been plain sailing.

In 2009, he started in only one of Ireland's games during the Grand Slam campaign after losing his number 2 jersey to Jerry Flannery. The following season was lost to injury.

None of his three World Cup campaigns have gone as planned, while a 2013 Lions omission caused a stir.

While Best eventually did make it on the tour to Australia after Dylan Hartley was banned for abuse of an official, and even captained the midweek side, he could not force his way into Warren Gatland's Test 23.

It was after the initial snub, when playing Cardiff in the Pro12, that Best received an ovation from his home support that displayed the wealth of feeling between player and fans.

In thankfully happier circumstances, a similar reception seems a certainty at Kingspan on Saturday.

Belfast Telegraph


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