Ireland captain Rory Best can still stake his claim to a starting Test jersey for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand, his friend and pack-mate Iain Henderson believes.
The veteran hooker, 34 years of age and with 103 Test caps for his country, was this morning bidding to make the most of his second start on this 2017 tour after England’s Jamie George passed his audition for the number two shirt against the All Blacks with an impressive performance against the Crusaders last Saturday.
Best is also vying with Welshman Ken Owens, the pre-tour favourite to get the nod from Lions head coach Warren Gatland, and the Irishman went into today’s game four of the tour against the Highlanders in Dunedin knowing he needed to put in a big shift in order to make his move for the opening Test on June 24.
Second row Henderson, who also was set to start this morning’s game, believes Best’s body of work and his leadership qualities are such that he will not be overlooked come selection for the first Test.
“I don’t think anyone can argue when someone’s got over 100 caps for their country that they can’t put their hand up and push for a Test start,” Henderson, 25, said.
“He’s been brilliant for Ireland and he’d be one of the first names on the teamsheet for Ireland.
“Over the last number of years Ireland have been progressing, getting better and better so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be putting his hand up with big performances and trying to nail down a Test jersey.
"However, if he pushes hard that will push his opposition hard and as a team that will raise the standard. That’s what we want: competition for jerseys. Competition drives standards and makes things better.”
This morning’s tour game in Dunedin marked a special occasion for Ulster Rugby with the Lions fielding three players from the province for the first time since 1974.
Best and Henderson were joined by full-back Jared Payne as the Lions took on the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, thereby emulating the feat of Willie John McBride, Dick Milliken, and Stewart McKinney in South Africa, 43 years before them.
That was news to Henderson but more recent history has informed the lock just how much of a debt he feels he owes to Best for taking him under his wing from the start of his professional career at Ravenhill to this current Lions tour.
The sight of the two forwards chewing the fat over a coffee is commonplace on this and previous Ireland tours and Henderson is happy to give credit where it’s due.
“It’s definitely been a long journey from my first session coming in and seeing Besty swanning around pre-season sunning himself, but he’s been instrumental.
"He’s always someone you can go to for advice. He has vast experience in the systems that Ireland used that I wasn’t familiar with, but also here, a fair few of the coaching staff are similar to his last tour.
“If I’m ever not sure about something, even if he doesn’t have the right answer, he’ll be the right person to clear things up with. More often than not he can give me a straight enough answer. He’s been good on tour.”
Best is also the yardstick for physical and mental toughness, Henderson said as he reacted to Ulster boss Les Kiss’s admiration of the hooker’s fortitude.
“Leading up to leaving for the tour, a lot of the Ulster boys’ season had finished early, earlier than we would have liked. Rory and I were in training together and I think it’s his mental toughness. That comes out in fitness more than anything.
“Him running the legs off me and other boys, he’s not exactly the fastest person, however, as he says, he’s got three settings — forwards, backwards, and idle. He’ll push himself and keep on going. I’d be running with him and I can take off quicker but he’ll keep on pushing past me. He’s a driving force when he’s in amongst the team.
“It’s a lot of the stuff that you might not see. He might not make 40 tackles in a game but he’ll be plugging holes where someone won’t get into. He’ll always be working hard in a defensive line or kick chase or getting back from a kick, he’ll always be one of the first ones working hard to get back.
"It’s those times when you need someone who is going to work really hard, even just to plug a hole or work hard around the corner to make sure we have numbers on the open side in defence.
"Those things, he’s always there, barking, always demanding more from the back when they’re scrummaging and then having a quiet word in between scrums to alter things.
“He’s had probably the guts of 300 games and it’s good to have that level head in there.”
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