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Alun Wyn Jones is in contention for a Test start.
Alun Wyn Jones is in contention for a Test start.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

'If you’re picking on form, it’s Itoje and Henderson' - Rory Best

The ex-Ireland captain also believes Johnny Sexton should have been called up.
Jul 19th 2021, 3:05 PM 23,031 14

Updated Jul 19th 2021, 5:29 PM

ALUN WYN JONES’ incredible recovery from injury may be the dominant story in the build-up to the game, but Rory Best feels the British & Irish Lions tour captain should be held in reserve by Warren Gatland for Saturday’s opening test against South Africa in Cape Town.

After damaging his shoulder in a warm-up encounter against Japan on 26 June, the Welsh lock was initially withdrawn from Tour duty with Ireland’s Conor Murray taking over as skipper.

However, fast forward to last Saturday’s meeting with the Stormers and a now fully-fit Wyn Jones – having returned to the fold just three days earlier – played the final 27 minutes of a resounding 49-3 victory for Gatland’s side.

This has opened up a debate as to whether the Ospreys veteran should be handed a starting berth against the Springboks, given the unquestionable leadership qualities he will bring to the table.

Yet from the point of view of former Ulster and Ireland hooker Best, Gatland would be wise to stick with the in-form players on the tour. For him, this means selecting the second-row combination of Maro Itoje and his former team-mate Iain Henderson.

“It’s a bit of a strange one because for me, if you’re picking on form, it’s Itoje and Henderson. I don’t believe that he’s brought Alun Wyn Jones out to not involve him in any of the tests. Whether it’s this weekend or whether it’s one of the next two, I’m not sure,” Best remarked today.

“I would probably put him on the bench, because I think to have him around is big. On what he’s done, he would be the next best guy to have in there. He’s still a very, very good player. He’s a very fit guy.

“He isn’t somebody that needs games to find form, but I just think, you’re going into a game like this, you pick your best players and there are enough leaders around the place to fill the gaps.”

rory-best Rory Best has teamed up with Specsavers this Farm Safety Week, to highlight the impact that excessive noise exposure can have on your hearing. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Another big call made by Gatland in the days leading up to this weekend’s test was the decision to add Marcus Smith to the squad as injury cover for Finn Russell. The 22-year-old Harlequins out-half only recently made his debut at senior level for England, but evidently had done enough to make the cut ahead of Irish counterpart Jonathan Sexton.

While acknowledging Smith is an exciting prospect for the future, Best believes his successor as international captain should have been the next man in line to board a plane to South Africa.

“My own opinion on it would be the Lions isn’t about bleeding players, it’s about picking the best players. Johnny for me was the next best out-half. You had four out-halves last year when you were picking the squad and one was going to be unlucky not to be on it. It wouldn’t have been the out-half that I left out. I wouldn’t have left Johnny out, but that’s the way it was.

“You’re going to divide opinion with whatever one you didn’t take or potentially whichever two you didn’t take. I don’t think anyone would question Marcus Smith’s ability and he played really well on Saturday. That’s not up for debate, but it’s just whether he was the next best out-half. For me, he wasn’t. He showed some class on Saturday, there’s no doubt about it.

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘Yeah, in four years’ time he’s potentially going to be the test out-half,’ but we’re not building for four years’ time. We’re building for Saturday and then the following Saturdays.”

A part of the Lions squad for their 2013 and 2017 tours to Australia and New Zealand respectively – he played nine midweek games in total across both trips, but ultimately missed out on Test selection – Best will understandably be keeping a close eye on the progress of the eight Irish players in the current set-up over the next few weeks.

There are three from this contingent that he expects to see named in the starting 15 at the Cape Town Stadium, with a couple of others also pushing hard for inclusion.

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conor-murray Best feels Conor Murray is 'pretty nailed-on'. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I would be saying that Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray would be pretty much nailed on for me. Hendy [Iain Henderson] would have been until Alun Wyn Jones reappeared and you’re just not sure what way Gatland is going to go with that.

“I feel that one of Bundee [Aki] or Robbie [Henshaw] will start,” the four-time Six Nations winner added.

“I’m just not 100% sure which. I think that Robbie, until the [hamstring] injury, was the guy definitely with the way he played against Japan.

“Just to have taken this long to come back and with the way the other centres have played [it might be difficult], but I think he did enough on Saturday. I would be starting Robbie as well.”

Rory Best has teamed up with Specsavers this Farm Safety Week, to highlight the impact that excessive noise exposure can have on your hearing.

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