It has been a Championship to remember for Rory Best, with a Six Nations winners’ medal around his neck, the new mantle of Ulster’s most-capped Ireland international and a starring role in Ireland’s ultra-reliable set piece game.
Rory Best’s importance to the team is highlighted by the fact that he has played in every one of Ireland’s last 40 RBS 6 Nations matches, starting the last 23 of them.
An incredible achievement when you consider the injuries Best has battled through, the serious neck injury in 2009, a separated AC joint during the 2011 World Cup and last year’s fractured forearm being the most notable.
That run of appearances stretches back to 2007 and includes five caps – four as a replacement – during the 2009 Grand Slam campaign.
Five years on, Best has made the Irish number 2 jersey his own and winning the Championship as a starter gave him a lot of personal satisfaction.
Reflecting on last Saturday’s title success in Paris, he told the Irish Independent: “To finally lift a trophy having been involved in every game is very, very special. I haven’t lifted many bits of silverware in my lift.
“I’ve lifted more in the past six or eight months, whatever it is, than in my entire career up to that point so it has been a fairly good year from that point of view.”
Best was part of the extended Lions squad that won last summer’s Test series against Australia – a tour he admittedly ‘struggled’ on – and he recovered from a fractured forearm to help Ulster see out a perfect six wins from six in the Heineken Cup pool stages.
The 31-year-old broke his arm during Ireland’s November defeat to the All Blacks. With metal plates and pins required to fix the fractured radial bone, he showing impressive powers of recovery to get back playing for Ulster by January 10.
He recaptured his best form during the Six Nations, his accurate lineout throwing giving Ireland a steady supply of ball and helping Devin Toner and Peter O’Mahony to emerge as two of the tournament’s leading five lineout jumpers.
Best was also prominent around the pitch, contributing regularly in open play with plenty of hard grafting at the breakdown and tenacity in the tackle.
The momentum Ireland gained from their improved scrummaging was also a crucial factor, with forwards coach John Plumtree this week singling out Best for praise.
“I was really impressed with Rory Best. He really deserves a mention for the way he drove that scrum and his physicality as well,” he said.
The player himself was just pleased to see the squad’s consistency being rewarded with title success – twelve months on from the disappointment of losing to Italy and finishing fifth in the table.
“Obviously there have been a few lows along the way, but it’s a team sport which means that when you get a low you can spread it out amongst every one.
“But there’s nothing quite like the highs when you win things and when things go your way.
“The atmosphere in that dressing room after the game on Saturday night was incredible. We’d given everything and we’d got the reward for doing that.”
Best overhauled current Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys as the province’s most-capped Ireland international when he lined out against England last month.
The Banbridge clubman is hoping Ulster’s increased involvement with Ireland – Andrew Trimble and Chris Henry were ever-present in the team, with Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson both used off the bench – can spur them on in their challenge for league and European honours.
“Now we’ve got a bit more of a taste for it (winning). The likes of Chris and Andrew know what it’s like to play in five (Six Nations) games. Chris was trailed off in every game in pieces after giving everything and you can see the scars from it,” said Best.
“Now we’ve won the Six Nations, we have a bit of a feel for what it’s going to take to win the European Cup.
“That’s probably going to be harder because whereas it (Six Nations) is five international games, you have to go through nine to win the European Cup.
“So, it’s going to be a massive challenge and there’s no point hiding away from that. It’s a massive goal for us and it’s a massive goal for me personally to win the European Cup before I retire.”