Best foot forward for Irish

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI

Rory Best emits a hearty laugh when you point out that he would have been BBC Northern Ireland's Sport Personality of 2011 if Ulster golfers hadn't been winning majors.

"I hope that doesn't say anything about Northern Ireland sport," he chortles in response as you remind him that he was best of the rest in third place in the local BBC awards behind Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke.

But the hooker has indeed become a bit of a star in Irish sport after his tremendous displays during the World Cup.

Part-time farmer Best will not utter it but the Ireland number two jersey appears firmly fixed on his broad shoulders for the foreseeable future after his exploits in New Zealand and Jerry Flannery's unfortunate injury woes.

The 29-year-old will make his 55th appearance for Ireland in Sunday's Six Nations opener against Wales at the Aviva Stadium.

Best made his international debut against the All Blacks in November 2005 and 53 further appearances later, insists that he still gets a "big thrill" from pulling on the green jersey.

One of his proudest moments came at Murrayfield during the 2007 tournament when he lined up alongside his brother Simon in the Irish front row as Eddie O'Sullivan's side earned the win that secured the Triple Crown.

"Hopefully I have a few more years left but when I do retire, it will be one of the fondest memories I will take away - playing a Six Nations match with my brother," said Best.

Family, farming and rugby were pretty much what the Best clan of Poyntzpass was all about.

"Both my brothers, my mother and father and my sister all loved going to matches and school and everything else came came a distinct third to farming and rugby," he said.

"So to get that first cap was unbelievable and it really does seem like yesterday.

"It was something that you always hoped might happen but you never really thought would," adds Best, even though he had come from a stellar career at schools level for Ulster and Ireland.

Some six and a bit years on, Best is now one of the leaders in the Irish squad - probably even more so for this year's Six Nations with skipper Brian O'Driscoll out of the reckoning.

The Ireland hooker expects O'Driscoll to have an input over the coming weeks although it could prove a delicate balancing act for Ireland's injured talisman.

"Brian needs to be available to the squad but he will also know that he's going to have to keep a bit of distance to give the boys time to shape the way they want to play," added Best.

"But there's no doubt, whoever is wearing the number 13 jersey will be on the end of the phone to Brian.

"It would be foolish to ignore a player of that experience just because he's injured."

O'Driscoll's absence may prove to be one of few changes from Ireland's World Cup line-up although Declan Kidney's announcement of an extended 32-man squad on Monday left open the possibility of a few rabbits being pulled out of the hat.

Best will not be surprised if Kidney largely keeps faith with the World Cup brigade.

"With international rugby, from the outside people seem to think that it comes in four-year cycles and now is the start of the new cycle [after the World Cup]," said the hooker.

"From a player's point of view, you want to pick the best players. If the best player available happens to be 37, pick him.

"Let's pick the best team for Ireland and not worry about what will happen in four years' time."

Given Sunday's opposition, inevitably there have suggestions of a potential 'grudge match' after Wales ended Ireland's World Cup hopes in New Zealand, and Mike Phillips's controversial try which swayed last year's Six Nations contest at the Millennium Stadium.

However, Best bats away any such suggestion.

"From a players' point of view, we don't hold grudges. They took an opportunity at the Millennium Stadium and won the game," he insisted.

"Then at the World Cup, they probably played to the best of their ability and we fell a few percentage points short.

"Sunday won't be about proving a point to Wales but proving to ourselves and the rest of the world that our performance at the World Cup up until the quarter-finals was because we are a good team and not because of luck."

With Ireland's campaign including trips to Paris and Twickenham, some bookies have Declan Kidney's side down as fourth favourites to lift the Championship but Best insists that the belief in the squad remains strong.

"It's going to be tough in that our first two games have two of the World Cup semi-finalists but the good thing is that we are at home on Sunday," he stated.

"We feel if we play to the best of our ability that there are very few teams we cannot beat.

"Obviously if we don't play to the best of our ability, there are a lot of teams that can beat us.

"But whether it's Paris, London or Dublin, we feel we have a very good chance of winning this tournament."

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