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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Schmidt counts on best man for the job

Ulster hooker holds Heaslip at bay to follow O'Connell

New team captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile
New team captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile

In the end, it was much ado about nothing unless you happened to be Rory Best.

The face of Ulster is now the face of Ireland as the well-respected, well-liked hooker became the chosen one to walk in the boots left behind by one Paul O'Connell.

It all came down to a call from Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

"He phoned me up and said the coaching staff had a meeting and they discussed a few things, and if I would accept it then they would love me to be captain," relayed Best.

It was not a moment for jumping up and down and screaming out loud.

It was a moment for cool, for calm, for mature leadership in a time of excitement

"Obviously, I was trying to play it cool but I said 'to be honest Joe it would be a massive honour to captain the side,' he told RTE Sport yesterday.

"Inside, I was a lot more excited than I let on to him. It's a massive honour, it's a really big deal for my family."

Blows

The Banbridge man has had to watch his brother Simon, a former international tight-head of repute, retire due to injury and take his own blows in a stellar career that has not been a stranger to heartache.

"We have been rugby fans, supporters and players all of our lives, and to now captain my country going into a Six Nations is a massive thing for me and my family."

The decision comes in the aftermath of Jamie Heaslip's unconvincing reign under Declan Kidney and the recent interest shown by Sean O'Brien.

Heaslip has been appointed as vice-captain in what could be a re-grooming of the Leinster number eight.

It is more likely an interim judgement before Munster's natural leader Peter O'Mahony returns to full fitness as Best's ultimate successor when the time is right.

This could well be viewed as a short-term appointment as 33 year-old Best is by no means certain to make it as far as the 2019 World Cup in Japan with the likes of James Tracy breaking through.

The current Ulster leader has enough big game experience and the positive media persona to handle all the responsibilities that accompany such an honour.

"I think it's obviously a challenge," he accepted.

"Both Paul (O'Connell) and Brian (O'Driscoll) were fantastic captains for Ireland and they very much led by example.

"They spoke and they spoke well. And people listened. But the big thing that they didn't do was try to be somebody else.

"They were their own person and man and led the way they did for their provinces and probably every other club that they had played for leading up to that point.

"I think that is something I will really take from them. Ultimately you lead by what you do."

This has never been lacking in Best's armoury as the hooker is always right at the heart of every battle in the trenches.

Looms

Of course, the possibility of a third Six Nations crown in a row looms large with Ireland's first opponents Wales trying to load the pressure through Warren Gatland's mischevious claim the Irish are the favourites.

The one game at a time mantra was summoned forth immediately.

"When you're dealing with a group of players that we have, it's always a prospect that we are going to win games and potentially win things.

"But, I think, for us, and the reason that Ireland has been successful under Joe Schmidt, is that it's always about the next game.

"It's not the third, fourth or fifth game in the Six Nations. It's about the next one.

"We'll not be looking beyond Wales and that is what has made Ireland as consistent as we have been under Joe.

"I can't see that changing now," in what was a remarkably similar stance always taken by O'Connell.

"If we look beyond Wales it would be very foolish and would go away from the core principles of what we are about."

However this pans out, Schmidt has made a thoroughly understandable decision in opting for a man, not just a player, who is universally popular and respected among his peers. He has earned the armband.

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