Rory Best facing a real battle to be fit for Irish Tests
But could the captain's woes prove a benefit to John Andrew?
Ireland skipper Rory Best is in a race against time to be fit for the Autumn Internationals with Ulster confirming yesterday he would be on the sidelines for up to six weeks.
The 35-year-old has been on crutches since sustaining a hamstring injury in training on Thursday with a scan over the weekend revealing a tear.
The hooker has not played since representing the Lions in New Zealand this summer but is now all but sure to miss out on his province’s European double-header next month at home to Wasps and away to La Rochelle while, even if he makes it back onto the field in time, will have had little or no game time under his belt by the time South Africa arrive in Dublin to kick-off the Guinness November Series on November 11.
As well as the Springboks, Ireland will also be taking on Fiji and Argentina.
Best has played in 37 of Joe Schmidt’s 47 games as national coach and hasn’t missed a complete block of Ireland Test matches for any reason other than Lions selection since the autumn of 2012.
Having been named captain for the 2016 Six Nations, he has led the side to historic first wins over the All Blacks and on South African soil, while also becoming the first Ulsterman to 100 caps.
But any absence in November would leave the national boss with a tough decision to make over the captaincy.
While Best has distanced himself from any retirement talk, this is the last season of the IRFU deal he signed back in November of 2015, with one of his predecessors in the captaincy role, Brian O'Driscoll, saying recently that he felt the Banbridge man would still be Ireland's first choice hooker come the World Cup in 2019 should he choose to keep playing.
Jamie Heaslip has acted as Best's vice-captain in the past - the Leinster No.8 also held the top role in the final days of Declan Kidney's reign - but has not played himself since the Six Nations due to an ongoing back complaint.
Peter O'Mahony is the most obvious candidate to take on the armband and, given his age profile, seems the likely successor to Best in the long-term, whether that be before Japan '19 or not.
Having captained the Lions in the first Test against the All Blacks in June, the Munsterman has obvious leadership credentials, but Schmidt will no doubt still be anxious over Best's wellbeing.
With limited games between now and the visit of the reeling Springboks, the Test centurion joins an already large group of key men who returned from the summer with injury concerns.
Those looking to recover include Jared Payne, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O'Brien and Garry Ringrose.
From an Ulster perspective, with Best seemingly sure to play little rugby for Ulster this side of December, it will be up to hookers Rob Herring and John Andrew to continue their holding down of the fort at Kingspan Stadium.
Herring, who was co-captain last season while Best stood aside, has started all three games of the Guinness PRO14 campaign so far, with Andrew coming off the bench to good effect.
Indeed, it was Andrew who crossed for the winning score in the final minutes of Friday's win over Scarlets, a third score in his last six appearances.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss believes that the absence of Best will give the 24-year-old continued chances to really establish himself.
"Rob is someone who always stands and delivers and John Andrew, going back to last season, is really growing his game," said Kiss.
"I thought he came on against Scarlets and did some good things for us which we needed. We needed to find a tempo in the game and some really physical moments, and he delivered on those things.
"There's parts of his game that are leaping off the ground. He gives you energy, he does the simple things well. He'll get his reward if he keeps doing that."