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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 15 December, 2018

35-year-old Best still Ireland's evergreen captain despite 'frustrating' start to season

Back to full fitness, the Ulster hooker is ready to lead Ireland into battle this month.

JUST IN THE nick of time, Rory Best is back and ready to lead Ireland into a season-ending three-game Autumn series.

Rory Best Best at the Guiness Storehouse earlier this week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

At 35, the Ulster hooker is very much the elder statesman of a squad which is beginning to be shaped around Joe Schmidt’s long-term plans for the 2019 World Cup — but he remains an ever-present, indispensable component of it.

Iain Henderson and Johnny Sexton have captained their respective provinces with some degree of success already this season, and Best’s limited game time leading into November may have forced a rethink from Schmidt.

But on the back of his 200th Ulster appearance at the weekend, Best is fit and ready to return to the Test arena with the armband when the Springboks arrive at the Aviva in a fortnight.

“You absolutely can’t take it for granted, especially when you see the quality of the squad and the quality of leaders we have within that,” he said this week.

“That’s what makes the squad strong, there’s never any Ireland squad I’ve been over the last 12 years that’s had to rely on one person. I might be the captain but there’s some very strong leaders in there that I lean very heavily on.

“And guys that have experienced captaining at club, international level, and captaining Lions in Test matches. So you have all that wealth of experience, and for me it would be foolish not to use it.”

So you must have been relieved to get the call from Joe again?

“I was very happy, it’s something I enjoy doing,” Best continued.

“With time and experience, captaincy’s definitely something you get better at. At the start, even though I had a lot of international caps, when you’re first asked to captain the squad it is still very nerve-racking.

“Walking into that first squad meeting, knowing you’re captain, and even with all the experience I’ve got, you’re wondering, ‘do I need to change anything, change who you are?’

“And the answer you always come up with is ‘no’, because you’ve been asked to do a job because of everything you’ve done to date. But it does still take you a little bit of time to settle into it.”

Ulster’s Rory Best Best made his 200th appearance for Ulster at the weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Best has taken a little bit of time to settle into this season, too.

Following his involvement in the Lions tour — during which he captained the tourists’ midweek side — his seasonal reappearance was delayed a couple of weeks by a hamstring tear he sustained in training.

Best eventually returned off the bench during the Champions Cup defeat to La Rochelle in France before that landmark occasion against Leinster last weekend. Both games ended in damaging defeats for the northern province.

In an ideal world, Schmidt would have preferred his hooker and captain to have had a few more games under his belt before the Springboks but with Ulster in South Africa to face the Kings this week, the option wasn’t there.

“It’s been a very frustrating start to the season for me,” Best admitted. “Playing so few minutes is not where I’d want to be at this point, but injuries are what they are.

“It would be nice to get in there and to pit yourself against some of the best players around. From a hooking point of view against SA and Arg they have arguably two of the best hookers around. So it’s a great test.”

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Ryan Bailey

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