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Lessons of the past are still playing a prominent role in veteran Best's game

Driving seat: Captain Thomas Jordan with Rory Best as the Irish rugby squad set off for Japan
Driving seat: Captain Thomas Jordan with Rory Best as the Irish rugby squad set off for Japan

By Des Berry

Once upon a time, Rory Best was young and impressionable.

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In November 2006, the 24-year-old was still some way off being the undisputed hooker for Ireland.

Sure, the steps had been taken from his debut as a replacement against New Zealand the previous November to a more central role in the front-row.

This was back when Munster's Heineken Cup odyssey gripped the rugby nation, their front five forwards eventually driving them gloriously through Europe in the spring of 2006.

Later that autumn, it was Best's fortune, or misfortune, to come across John Smit, the 122kg (19st) hooker, a man monster, on his first Ireland start.

The 2007 World Cup-winning South Africa captain concluded his international career in 2011 as the most-capped Springbok of all time - at the time.

There was no fiercer, more intimidating competitor than Smit when two front-rows locked shoulders.

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Still wet behind the ears, the Ulsterman was surrounded by those proven props Marcus Horan and John Hayes and locks Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, a Munster security blanket of sorts.

Thirteen years on, Best has not forgotten his true introduction to the international level.

"I remember my first start was against him (Smit) and it was just the sheer size of him, just enormous," he said.

Well, Best survived his greatest test as a scrummager, for no one since has made quite the same dent on the Ulsterman in a career in which he has faced them all, from South Africa's Bismarck du Plessis to France's William Servat.

Whenever there have been tough times in that area, the survival instincts of being put through the mill by Smit has served Best well.

There is the physical grunt and grind of the scrum and there is the psychological minefield of throwing.

The isolation of the action and the ramifications of ball won or lost can rock a hooker's confidence and even spread doubt throughout a team.

The Ireland line-out has been a source of vulnerability in the lead-up to the World Cup, falling apart against England and, at times, looking shaky in the back-to-back battles with Wales.

It is no surprise to hear Jamie George hailed as the one to aim at when it comes down to darts.

"The best thrower, I reckon, is Jamie George. He is just incredible," said Best.

Of course, the Ireland captain got a close look at how the Saracen operates on the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

"The way he went about practicing on that tour - that's the great thing about the Lions, you see different aspects," he said.

"He practices with all sorts of stuff, American footballs. You've seen the pictures of him practicing in the sea, with a step ladder.

"I have seen him with a boxing glove in one hand just to make himself uncomfortable."

Best doesn't have to look to the other end of the world or across the Irish Sea for the man he would like to be in the loose.

"I actually don't know if you get many better than Sean Cronin, in fairness to him," he said.

The Ireland captain hasn't done too badly, in fairness to him.

Belfast Telegraph


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