Barring injury or some unforeseen disaster, the next two months will see Ulster’s Rory Best surpass Keith Wood’s record as Ireland’s most capped hooker.
Wood – who celebrates his 40th birthday today – wore Ireland’s number two jersey on 58 occasions. To date Best, now 29, has 54 appearances to his credit and with five Championship matches on the horizon he is within touching distance of virgin territory.
The Six Nations is a mighty tough schedule, but less rigorous than was the case back in 2005/06 when he began collecting caps. Best reckons the current format ticks all the boxes from a player’s point of view.
“International rugby is exceptionally intense, but you don’t want to do one game and then take a long break from it because you’re trying to get into a flow ,” he says.
“The 6 Nations format we have now – two games, break, one game, break, two back-to-back games to finish –works because while it allows a wee bit of recovery time, it also recognises the importance of allowing teams to develop their continuity. It’s about getting the balance right and I think they have done that.
“Now in the 6 Nations – same as the Heineken Cup – it’s only two games in a row. If you were having to go three, one after the other, in either of those competitions, that really would be tough.”
Not that players’ well-being comes down to the fixtures-organisers alone. Best believes that Irish rugby’s decision-makers and structure formulators also deserve praise for the vision they have shown in protecting players from burn-out whilst not imposing too big a burden on the provinces in terms of their stars’ availability.
Clearly it is working, with the fact that Leinster, Munster and Ulster are in the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition confirming the success of the Player Management Programme. Ditto Leinster having won the Heineken Cup and Munster the Magners League (now RaboDirect Pro12) in the same season as Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam.
Stressing the importance and proven wisdom of the system, Best’s view on how he and his international club-mates are treated is: “Ulster and the IRFU have been very good to us. This way of doing things is helping our longevity and now, hopefully, we’ll be that wee bit fresher come games like the European Cup quarter-final.”
Ulster have helped Best, too, in deference to his new domestic circumstances. With him now living in Gilford – where he is farming Aberdeen Angus cattle – rush-hour driving conditions were going to make it difficult for him to get to Newforge for 9am.
But fitness and conditioning coach Jonny Davis showed a much-appreciated commonsense approach in dealing with that, something Best was keen to acknowledge.
“Again, Ulster have been very good about things,” he explains. “Nine o’clock in the morning was a bit of a problem with the traffic on the road at that time of day, so Jonny was happy for me to do weights at eight or ten.
“It’s the same for Stephen (Ferris) who is coming from Magheraberry or Ian (Humphreys) who’s coming from Ballymena; if any of the boys are travelling into Belfast from other places, they try to keep us out of the traffic.”
Having studied Ireland’s 2012 RBS 6 Nations schedule which begins with an Aviva Stadium re-run of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final clash with highly-fancied Wales, take it as read that Best will have worked out what is needed if the Irish are to regain the title currently held by England, who they face at Twickenham in the final match of the series on St Patrick’s Day.
Best is a pretty shrewd judge when it comes to assessing probable outcomes, witness the impressive accuracy of his Heineken Cup forecast three days after Ulster’s 20-9 defeat by Leicester at Welford Road.
At the time only two of the six group-stage matches had been played, with Ulster having beaten Clermont 16-11 in Belfast before losing at the Tigers.
He predicted: “Twenty points definitely will get you through.
“Hopefully we will get 10 – five from each of the two games – against Aironi in December, which would leave us sitting top of Pool 4 at Christmas with 14 points. Then the important thing is to beat Leicester at home so we go into the last round, on top of the table, for a shoot-out against Clermont over there.”
Everything turned out exactly as he foretold it. So hopefully he is equally accurate when he says: “Undoubtedly we (Ireland) are good enough to win the 6 Nations.”