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Six Nations: Porter has quality to pass his biggest Test yet, insists Rory Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

By the end of this afternoon, there will be only two men who have pulled on the green jersey of Ireland more times than Rory Best.

The Ulster hooker will be winning his 109th cap when he leads the side out against Wales in this middle round of the 2018 Six Nations, breaking a tie with Paul O'Connell and leaving him behind only Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll on the all-time list.

Since his debut all the way back against New Zealand almost 13 years ago, the Poyntzpass man has seen it all in international rugby, quite unlike the youngster who will be packing down alongside him come scrum time.

Ireland's front-row is Joe Schmidt's team in a microcosm.

Along with Best, loosehead Cian Healy is another massively experienced campaigner with 75 Test caps already behind him, but injury to Tadhg Furlong has meant the No.3 jersey going to Leinster's Andrew Porter.

A man who not so long ago was a specialised loosehead, he has appeared at this level just four times before, and as impressive as he was against Italy when pressed into early action, Wales will obviously be a step up in quality.

For Furlong and Porter, read Iain Henderson and James Ryan, or indeed even Sean O'Brien and Dan Leavy.

Injuries have also deprived Schmidt of his centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, with Garry Ringrose absent too, meaning Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki, with just the six caps between them, will be in the midfield.

Ireland's experience is certainly top heavy with the six least experienced players in the starting side accounting for just 27 of the 604 total caps.

"We're short on experience, we're up against a team welcoming back three Lions," said Joe Schmidt earlier this week. "It's not ideal, but there's no better place to learn than in that white-hot atmosphere."

Best, who has had the likes of John Hayes, Mike Ross and now Furlong alongside him for the majority of his Test career, believes that Porter is ready for his toughest challenge yet.

"He doesn't look overly young for the size of him," said Best of Porter, who will be going head-to-head with Rob Evans, a loosehead who is often also prominent in the loose.

"He's taken to tighthead and to international rugby really well. He's always learning, he's inseparable from Cian Healy here at the minute, and it's the same at Leinster.

"He's a young, enthusiastic kid who just wants to learn, and he keeps getting better and better. The way he prepares and goes to training, he's ready to take this step.

"Having Tadhg (Furlong) there was a lovely buffer to let Andrew come on and just get used to the level, but sometimes your chance comes through someone else's misfortune.

"But the last five minutes was arguably his best five minutes, which is exciting and says a lot about his conditioning."

As well as his lack of experience on this stage, it has also been noted that Porter has never played against PRO12 champions the Scarlets, with the premier Welsh region supplying the national side's entire front-row.

While the lesser known quantity of Porter is sure to have been the focus of plenty of Wales scrum coach Robin McBryde's analysis this week, Best foresees no problem in the set-piece, provided his side are "protected" by referee Glen Jackson.

Ireland have won all 13 of their scrums in this season's Championship, as well as winning one against the head.

"We pride ourselves on how we scrummage and how we try to be effective, but we try to scrum square and scrum legally - or as legally as anyone can," he said.

"And the big thing for us is that if we can stay like that and keep the weight on, if other things happen to compromise the scrum going down or the scrum wheeling, that the referee takes it into consideration.

"I know the coaches will be talking to him. And that will be our simple message before the game: that we have shown in the past that we want to scrummage straight and we do scrummage straight, and we scrum legally.

"And all we ask is for that to be respected, and I suppose protected. It's a real test for us because we're going to have to make sure that we do some things really, really well."

Just as Best won his 100th cap against Australia in the Aviva Stadium in 2016, Warren Gatland will rack up a century of Tests in charge of Wales today.

The former Ireland coach, who brought Best on two Lions tours although never selected him in the Test side, will step away after the 2019 World Cup, with the opposing skipper believing his longevity is a testament to his adaptability.

"I think there's no doubt and you can see it in the way Wales have evolved in the last couple of years, there's no doubt that he's adaptable," he said of a figure who has had the style of his teams criticised over the years despite all the success.

"To stay for 100 caps at this level is a fantastic feat, and I think we're very quick to praise players when it happens, so for a coach to be around long enough to do that is a brilliant achievement. And hopefully he can get a win in his 101st game to celebrate that.

"That's ultimately a fantastic achievement, you don't want to take that away, but obviously we don't want to give them a win to celebrate it.

"He's very prepared, and when he speaks to you as a squad, he references back to when he played, and he didn't want to be out on the pitch for long periods of time.

"As a player you want sessions to be short, you want to feel you've got something from it, and that's the way he coaches.

"And if you can get that it keeps the players interested, and if you can keep the players interested you can stay around, because you get performances and success."

While Ireland have not beaten Wales in the Six Nations since 2014 - although they did get the better of a World Cup warm-up a year later - Best rejects the notion that the side have become a bogey team while giving little thought to Gatland's previous suggestion that it is England who are the best team in the tournament.

"He's entitled to his opinion," he said. "He's coming off the back of having just played England and their record over the last two years speaks for itself. But we'll not really pay any heed to that. We'll hope that through our performance that we can change his mind. And if it doesn't change his mind but we win, we'll not really be that bothered."

The Six Nations, as always, is a results-based business.

Verdict: Ireland

This is a game that hasn't come at the best time for Joe Schmidt who has lost three key players since naming his side for Italy last time out. Wales, in contrast, are boosted by the return of key trio Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar. Games between these two are usually tight and today should be no different.

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