Rory Best has vowed to lead Ireland in the same vein as renowned captains Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
The Ulster skipper has succeeded O’Connell as Ireland captain, and pledged to follow in the footsteps of the talismanic lock, who retired from Test rugby after the autumn’s World Cup.
Best leads a 35-man Ireland squad including the uncapped quartet of CJ Stander, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier.
Props Cian Healy and Mike Ross and flanker Chris Henry will miss Ireland’s opening RBS 6 Nations fixtures against Wales and France, but head coach Joe Schmidt hopes the trio will return for the tournament’s latter stages.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play under some of Ireland’s best captains,” said Best, named Ireland captain for the fast-approaching Six Nations.
“Especially in Paulie (O’Connell) and Brian (O’Driscoll), and now to be taking over from those guys is a huge honour for me, and for my family as well.
“It’s about leading from example in the same way that those guys before have done too. I think the big thing is we have a strong squad, a good mixture of new guys coming into their first ever camp, guys with a handful of caps but also a good mix of players with leadership and captaincy experience.
“For me it shouldn’t change what I do. If I wasn’t captain I would go about things the same way. You’ve got to do that and trust that the senior players around you will have your back and do what they do.
“Ireland don’t have a big problem tying people together, we’ve all played together for so long.
“For us it’s a lot easier to pull people together, and for me it’s about doing what I’ve done to this point and making sure I set the right examples because I know the other senior players will be doing the same.”
Best joins his brother and former Ireland prop Simon in captaining his country, but accepted that the greater pressure will come from succeeding O’Connell.
Former Munster powerhouse O’Connell retired from Test rugby on joining Toulon after the World Cup.
Best admitted he must step up another level in following not just O’Connell, but former Ireland and British and Irish Lions captain O’Driscoll before him.
“There’s obviously a bit of pressure, with how successful we’ve been,” said Best. “But it’s an exciting time.
“After the World Cup quarter-final defeat the boys just can’t wait to get back together and have another crack at international rugby and to make sure we move on quickly.”
Munster’s European Champions Cup captain Stander is eyeing a back-row berth after completing residency qualification, while powerhouse Ulster centre McCloskey boosts Schmidt’s midfield steel.
Healy’s knee problem and Ross’ hamstring complaint will prove a significant early-tournament blow as Ireland seek to retain the Six Nations crown for a third year in succession.
Ulster flanker Henry’s shoulder injury further opens the door for uncapped Munster star Stander to make his Ireland debut, with Peter O’Mahony still on the long road back from knee surgery.
Uncapped Connacht lock Dillane has edged out Munster’s Dave Foley for one of the second row berths, with Ulster’s Dan Tuohy still sidelined.
And Leinster flanker Van Der Flier has the opportunity to impress after winning the call-up as cover while Henry continues to work his way back from that shoulder problem.
Head coach Schmidt admitted Ireland had “resisted the temptation” to include bolters like Leinster’s highly-rated 20-year-old centre Garry Ringrose.
Ireland Under-20s graduate Ringrose is enjoying a fruitful full breakthrough campaign with Leinster, and was invited to Ireland’s training camp earlier this month.
Schmidt has now confirmed his intention not to add any extra burden to a youngster already likened to O’Driscoll.
“Stalwarts such as Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Chris Henry are all likely to return to play over the coming weeks and they, along with some of the other players not included, will potentially return to the squad post these first two matches,” said Schmidt.
“There are a few new faces but at the same time we have resisted the temptation to include some of the very promising youngsters, allowing them a bit more time to develop as well as the opportunity of further game time with their provinces.”