Sports

Pundit Dawson backs Best to lead Lions

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Pundit Dawson backs Best to lead Lions thumbnailCAPTAIN FANTASTIC...Under Rory Best's leadership Ireland have toppled the world's top two teams England and New Zealand over the last six months. SG1345

LEADING rugby pundit Matt Dawson is backing local hero Rory Best to captain this summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand on the back of the epic victories he has captained his country to in recent months.
Under Acton man Best's captaincy, Ireland have stunned the world's top two teams, New Zealand and England, since November and former England World Cup winner Dawson thinks that should sway Lions coach Warren Gatland.
The Lions squad will be announced on April 9 and Gatland has indicated that there are up to six captaincy contenders, with Best presumably joined by his English counterpart Dylan Hartley and the Welsh duo of Alan Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton as leading candidates.
In spite of Hartley's dreadful disciplinary record, England's impressive run of success under Eddie Jones appeared to have helped the Northampton hooker's chances of leading the Lions back to his native New Zealand.
However Hartley has been substituted early by Jones throughout the Championship campaign and now some suggest he may even miss out on the tour party with the three hooking places going to Best, Ken Owens of Wales and Hartley's bench back-up, Jamie George.
Warburton was Wales captain for six years under Gatland - and led the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013 - but relinquished the role this season to Alun Wyn Jones, a player like Best who has won more than a century of caps at international level.
Ireland hadn't the Six Nations Championship campaign they were hoping for but beating England got them the runners-up place in the end while Wales only finished fifth courtesy of that surreal finish in Paris when Frances scored a try with the clock red for nearly 20 minutes.
Given Gatland's association with Wales it might be better for squad cohesion for the captain to come from another nation and the 34-year-old Best is much more likely to make the Test team than Scottish skipper Greg Laidlaw, probably behind England's Ben Youngs and Rhys Webb of Wales never mind Ireland's Conor Murray in the queue for the No 9 jersey.
Best was hard done by to miss out on selection for both the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa and 2013 trip to Australia, though he was called up to the latter and actually captained the team in a midweek match.
Although Ireland coach Joe Schmidt wouldn't be drawn after the England game on who should be Lions skipper, he paid tribute to Best by saying: "I'm very glad he's our captain, I'm incredibly proud of Rory - the way he leads the team and the way he performs on the pitch."
Meanwhile Best expressed a mixture of frustration and pride after leading Ireland to that valiant victory over England in Dublin which concluded their RBS Six Nations Championship campaign on a high.
Ireland's ferociously fought 13-9 win in a raucous Aviva Stadium ended England's hopes of back to back Grand Slams and also stopped them setting a new world record of 19 Test victories on the trot.
The existing record of 18 had been established by New Zealand whose winning run had also been ended by Ireland in that famous first ever victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November.
Last weekend's was a performance full of pride and passion from the men in green who dominated both territory and possession, and Irish skipper Best shared a nation's satisfaction in derailing the English chariot.
However Ireland's display also left a sense of what might have been as the hope had been that this final fixture in the Six Nations would be a Grand Slam showdown between the hosts and the English side.
But a slow start to their opening game at Murrayfield saw Schmidt's side slide to defeat at the hands of Scotland and they also lost their penultimate match to Wales in Cardiff, meaning England came to Dublin already assured of the title.
Denying them the Grand Slam for the third time this century may have been significant consolation but this Ireland team set their sights high and Best wasn't getting carried away with the elation of a one-off occasion.
“I think this Championship campaign will be incredibly frustrating to look back at - our uncharacteristic performance in the first 30 minutes against Scotland and then the fine margins (between winning and losing) in Cardiff," reflected Rory.
“Coming into the last round of fixtures no longer able to win the title wasn't what we wanted but it was important to finish strongly and all the guys really fronted up today.
“There has been so much said about beating England but for us it wasn't as much about stopping them as putting together a performance worthy of this team, this crowd and this occasion. We'd talked about that rather than about spoiling parties.
“England are a massive side who have been going very well so we knew we would have to produce a really big performance and the crowd really lifted us.
“It was everything a Six Nations game should be and naturally we're pleased to have got the result."
The somewhat controversial last-gasp Welsh defeat to France in Paris had already assured Ireland of a top four seeding at the 2019 World Cup in Japan just before kick-off but as it transpired the men in green didn't need any favours as England lost for the first time under Aussie coach Jones.
Dominant Ireland led 10-3 at the interval, Best's fellow Ulsterman Ian Henderson scoring the try with out-half Johnny Sexton added the conversion to his earlier penalty. He landed another long-range effort in the second half with England's points all coming from the boot of Owen Farrell, son of Ireland defence coach, Andy.
As always, a bloodied Best's personal performance was epitomised by ferocious commitment and tireless effort either side of going off for a head injury assessment in the first quarter.
His much-marked face afterwards was reflective of the bruising battle which had taken place as Ireland became the first team in 27 matches to stop England scoring a try over the course of 80 minutes.
The Ireland line-out, under much scrutiny after three lost balls in Cardiff, actually proved a real strength on the day in spite of England fielding three specialist locks - with Maro Itoje at blindside flanker - and the tallest green giant Devin Toner having been omitted.
Best benefited from having a third target thanks to Munster skipper Peter O'Mahony - tipped as a future Ireland captain - coming into the back row when vice-captain Jamie Heaslip pulled out after injuring himself in the warm-up.
The Ulsterman's throwing was faultless and although much of his work in the trenches was of the unglamorous nature, this England game will also be remembered for Best's wonderfully deft pass behind his back in an attack just before his head injury check.
Rory's proactive dialogue with French referee Jerome Garces about the cynical late hits on key man Sexton has been much commented on, though the heroic out-half typically never shirked in this exceptionally physical contest.
The skipper himself was quick to pay tribute to the way young players stepped up on the day for Ireland, including Andrew Conway coming onto the wing at half-time for his first cap and sub scrum- half Luke McGrath whose tantalising kick to the corner pinned England deep in their own territory for the final few minutes.
Even with England going to their bench early, Best wasn't withdrawn until the final few minutes, which is testament to the veteran's fantastic fitness and how much Schmidt values having his experienced, calm leadership on the field.
In 2016, Best skippered Ireland to an historic hat-trick of wins over the southern hemisphere big three - including a first ever victory in South Africa - and beating England means his side have recently overcome all three teams above them in the world rankings.
Rory reached his 100 caps milestone against Australia in November, only the fifth Irishman ever to hit that landmark, is currently contracted until next summer and hasn't ruled out playing in a fourth World Cup even though he will be 36 when the 2019 tournament takes place in Japan.
His immediate focus however will be on leading Ulster's bid to secure a place in the end of season Guinness Pro12 top four play-offs, though before then Best will hopefully be honoured at this week's Armagh-Banbridge-Craigavon Sports Awards.
Being a professional sportsman has left Rory out in the cold in terms of the official categories at the ABC Awards and previously the old Armagh Sports Awards, but having won Player of the Year at last month's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards he has also surely earned a special presentation at local level this Thursday in Craigavon Civic Centre.
A native of the former Armagh City and District, a past pupil of Portadown College and a member of Banbridge Rugby Club, Best has strong roots in each constituent part of the new wider district and is a real local sporting hero the entire community can be very proud of.

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