They have led the Irish team to greatness and back again and together will carry a nation’s World Cup hopes to Japan, but right now Rory Best is seeing one advantage in going up against Johnny Sexton.
When they lead their respective provinces out at the Aviva Stadium for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final, it will be the first time the Ireland captain and one of his vice-captains have faced each other in a game of this stature. Being in opposite corners is exactly the type of challenge they’ll embrace, and Best can appreciate the irony.
“We will not be going out to target Johnny but I won’t be having to have that conversation with the ref about protecting Johnny,” he smiled.
Neither is likely to take a backward step in those discussions and referee Romain Poite can expect to hear it in stereo.
“It will be an interesting conversation we have when Poite at some stage I am sure will bring us both together to talk during the game,” Best said. “So we will see who can keep their cool in the middle of that!
“Look, Johnny is a fantastic leader within the Ireland squad and he has been doing a great job at Leinster. It will be very strange to be opposite him as opposing captain but look, he has more than earned the captaincy at Leinster.
“Ultimately we will obviously put pressure on him but we will try and put pressure on all of the Leinster team because if you go over one player in a team like that, there are 14 who are capable of picking you off.”
As World Player of the Year, Sexton endured criticism for some off-key performances in the Six Nations. Best, who revealed he has yet to make up his mind whether to play on for Ulster next season beyond the World Cup, insisted the team’s collective malaise was more to blame rather than individuals and predicts the out-half’s return to blue to coincide with a return to top form.
“Because Johnny and Conor (Murray) are among the best players in the world and seen as the lynchpin of their team, they get criticism, yet the criticism needs to fall on the (Ireland) team and why we didn’t function as a team.
“But Johnny Sexton have no doubt, is the man for the big occasion. We make a plan to put as much pressure as we can on this Leinster team, him included, but you know that he going to produce something. You can try to keep him quiet but you’re not going to keep him quiet for 80 minutes.”
Meanwhile, Iain Henderson will be given until the last possible moment to prove his fitness for Ulster’s first Champions Cup quarter-final in five years. The Ireland and Lions lock sprained a knee in the penultimate Six Nations game against France earlier this month and missed the defeat by Wales in Cardiff.
“It is day by day with him,” said Ulster assistant coach Dwayne Peel, “I think the call will be made on him later in the week”.
Louis Ludik is out with a leg injury but fellow centre Darren Cave, who also limped out of that game, is likely to be fit.