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Veteran Best has real shot of being roaring success for British Lions

By Jonathan Bradley

As always, it has started with murmurs but over the next 12 months speculation regarding who will be part of the British and Irish Lions touring party to New Zealand in the summer of 2017 will reach fever pitch.

While we don't yet even know who will be choosing the panel, with the post-World Cup Six Nations out of the way, every Test between now and an All Black haka next June 24 will be played against the backdrop of selection battles between players vying for the highest honour available to those from the four home unions.

As such, every northern hemisphere rugby fan's favourite quadrennial debate begins in earnest.

Having been left on tenterhooks for tours gone past, Rory Best is sure to be in contention again and facing up to the familiar close scrutiny from both selectors and media.

A veteran of the victorious 2013 series in Australia, the Ulster and Ireland captain has all the experience to be a hugely valuable addition to a party looking to eradicate painful memories of their last visit to the land of the long white cloud.

That Clive Woodward-led tour in 2005 got off to an inauspicious start with Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder injury minutes into the first Test and only got worse as the team were undone by an inspired Dan Carter and slumped to a first whitewash in 22 years.

Things have improved immeasurably since that series sparked debate about the side's very future but a three-game battle with the World champions remains no less daunting a prospect and one that will demand calm heads.

Best had a strong Six Nations even if, like Joe Schmidt's side, not hitting the considerable heights of which he is capable.

With the extra burden of leadership, matching the high watermark of what was quietly a sensational World Cup from the Poyntzpass man was always unlikely but he remained a solid performer for the dethroned champions.

While he and Devin Toner struggled with their lineout at crucial times against England at Twickenham, so did just about everybody else when faced with the twin nuisance of Saracens pair Maro Itoje and George Kruis.

In terms of breakdown contribution, he still has few peers as a hooker and his work-rate around the park remains akin to that of a younger man.

While he had the high of captaining the mid-week side in Australia three years ago, he did not feature in the Test squad that defeated the Wallabies, although the two men who did played no part in this Six Nations.

Tom Youngs has been jettisoned by new England coach Eddie Jones while Richard Hibbard has not featured for Wales since facing Ireland last August.

The most impressive No.2 in the championship was France's Guilhem Guirado but Dylan Hartley also performed well.

The controversial Northampton man has been far from saintly in his past, and indeed was replaced by Best for 2013 following a suspension for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes, but barring a relapse his redemptive inclusion seems a certainty.

His international understudy, Jamie George, is another likely selection if he is handed enough minutes to impress.

Having firmly established himself as Warren Gatland's first choice over the past two seasons, Scott Baldwin may still have some way to go in order to swap the red of Wales for that of the Lions while Scotland's Ross Ford, a Test replacement in 2009, is part of what has been an effective unit for club and country but will be 33-years-old by the time the plane takes off.

It is age, too, that will remain the talking point surrounding Best's candidacy.

He'll be approaching 35 when the Test series begins but, despite making reference to how his body will hold up ahead of Ireland's summer tour to South Africa, has so far shown little sign of slowing down and is contracted until 2018.

Another year at his current level and a second tour, this time perhaps even in the Test side, is a real possibility.

Belfast Telegraph


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