Ireland captain Rory Best says the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and Ireland's summer tour to the USA and Japan will provide 'a great test' of Irish rugby's depth at international level.
Rory Best is one of 11 Irish players who will link up with Warren Gatland's Lions squad next month in preparation for the 10-match tour, which begins against the New Zealand Barbarians in Whangarei on Saturday, June 3.
Best is the elder statesman of the tour party at 34 and the second most-capped player behind Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones, and could have a key leadership role both on and off the field. This will be his second Lions tour - he has made the original selection this time around, four years on from travelling down to Australia as an injury replacement for Dylan Hartley.
As well as wanting to gain Test honours with the Lions and play his part in a Series win in New Zealand, Best will no doubt be keeping in touch with the action both Stateside and in Japan as Ireland embark on their own three-Test tour in June.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has said that the Irish tour's theme is 'long-term planning for short-term success', with a definite eye on the future and the squad's return to Japan in two years' time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Best agrees that much will be learned by the senior players away with the Lions and also those on duty with Ireland.
"From as Irish point of view, I think 11 (Lions) is very good for us but we still have a lot of quality to go away and tour America and Japan," the hooker, who is on a family break in Donegal, told www.UlsterRugby.com. "It will be a great test of our depth and it will be another step forward for us. Guys going on their first Lions tour will learn a lot but the boys going on tour with Ireland will also learn as much."
The Ireland skipper, who now has 104 international caps to his name, was admittedly 'delighted' and 'relieved' to be called up by the Lions, and while he was especially pleased that Jared Payne and Iain Henderson made it three Ulster tourists, he was also disappointed for those who were not included.
"I suppose there will be a few people who will be disappointed to miss out. Jamie (Heaslip) and Rob (Kearney) picked up injuries at the wrong time. Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan, Garry Ringrose all could have went. It's great for Irish rugby to have so many going away and you can actually list some real quality players that have missed out.
"Personally, I suppose I'm a bit relieved after not being named in the initial squad four years ago. There was a lot of pressure - everyone said I had a good chance this time. To be sitting round with the family when my name was read out - it was elation - that is probably the best word for it.
"I just tried to take each game as it came and try to focus on playing well every time I took to the pitch. I didn't focus too much on that one goal, I went through the process of concentrating on the small targets and gave myself the best opportunity to make it.
"You try to tell yourself that it won't be a big deal of you don't make it this time, but ultimately, waiting for the announcement was very tense and nervous and no matter how much you try to kid yourself, it would probably have felt like the end of the world for a few hours if I didn't make it."
The versatility of both Payne and Henderson obviously played a part in their selection by the Lions management, and Best is ideally placed as their provincial and international team-mate to speak about the qualities that both players possess.
"With JP, obviously getting that (kidney) injury (last November) and coming back to be selected, it shows how good a player he is. We obviously know how important he is to Ulster and Ireland. To fight back and get into this squad is brilliant.
"For 'Hendy' to get picked is great. He does a lot of training with me and catches a lot of balls every week and never complains about it - I've seen first hand how hard he works. It maybe looked during the Six Nations that his chance had gone but it just shows that if you keep your head down and keep working hard, you can get the rewards.
"He got that opportunity against England and he showed what a quality player he is and I'm just delighted for him that he's been recognised. There's no doubting how good a player he is and how good a player he's going to be and he's now got one of the biggest stages in the world to show it."
Having been part of the last Lions tour and also made history by leading Ireland to their first ever win over New Zealand, Best is clearly relishing the prospect of donning the famous red jersey against the All Blacks in one of the most testing rugby environments in the world.
"When we played Australia four years ago they were in a period of transition - they weren't a particularly settled side and they were getting beaten by a lot of teams - whereas New Zealand are the best team in the world by a bit of a distance," admitted the Banbridge clubman.
"They are different environments. Australia is obviously a lot bigger and there are so many more sports there. Whereas with New Zealand, any time we've been there with Ireland, it's a lot more hostile.
"Everyone in the country will know what you're there for and you'll be in a gold fish bowl. It will be very tough but it's a great opportunity to go to one of the biggest rugby playing nations in the world and try to something special.
"It's a case of trying to ensure we become a team and drive forward and hold nothing back. The little intricacies that we have with Ireland, we need to explore those and tell people about them within the Lions. And you expect the same from the other nations. What worked against New Zealand, what worked in other games.
"You have to be as open as you can and ultimately you have to have as much 'craic' together before the first game so you're a proper team. There's something a bit 'old school' about it. You just have to get together and strip everything back and try to enjoy yourself and enjoy each other's company and you hope that you'll see that on the pitch."
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