Rory Best welcomes pressure as fight for Lions places heats up

Three Ulster players named in team to take on Highlanders in Dunedin

Rory Best: lines out for the Lions against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

Rory Best: lines out for the Lions against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

 

Follow that. The pressure is on this Tuesday’s Lions team, from the Highlanders, and internally too, given how last Saturday’s Lions raised the bar and put it up to their squad mates.

It doesn’t help these midweek Lions that suddenly the cut-off point for Test selection is looming ever closer and that, realistically, the slightly under-strength Highlanders will not be viewed in the same way as a locked and comparatively fully loaded Crusaders.

Yet Rory Best describes it as a good pressure. “That’s the pressure that comes with this squad, when there’s so many good players. They set standards and it’s up to us to make sure that we set a higher bar again, and that’s what will ultimately drive us on to win the games coming up, but also in trying to win a series. It’s about making sure that we push ourselves and that’s there no perceived midweek team or Saturday team; that everyone is playing as close to their best. And that will drive competition and that will drive performances.”

The Highlanders are missing some key men, notably Aaron Smith and Ben Smith, and without the former’s direction and kicking game especially, it’s hard to gauge whether they’ll be cut from the same cloth. For example, with Aaron Smith such a pivotal playmaker, the Highlanders have kicked the ball more than any other team in Super Rugby this year – 29 times per game.

“I think when you look back over their last few games it’s very hard to predict what they are going to do,” admitted Best. “They seem to change some of their defensive set-ups in and around their lineouts. Even in general play, they change their attacks almost from week to week and game to game. Whenever a team is unpredictable it leaves you with a real handful because it’s hard to plan.

“The flip side of that is you have to really concentrate on yourself. You have to make sure that you’re good enough and you want to execute well, but you also have to play on the hop, and that’s the test that these boys are going to provide.”

But as the Highlanders’ assistant coach Scott McLeod said “for some of them, it will be the biggest game of their lives.”

Their captain, Luke Whitelock (brother of All Blacks lock Sam), said: “Tuesday is going to be one of the games of my life. And I guess you want to go out there and not die wondering.”

“They’re a good side,” said Best. “They have a very good record at home. I think it’s a very unique stadium to play in. We played here with Ireland back in 2011. It’s a great atmosphere with it being indoors and it’s going to be a very tough test.”

As for his own form, it is clear that one moment – what he conceded was his slightly hurried throw with the Lions’ last minute attacking lineout against the Blues – has undermined his tour.

“It’s been a little frustrating because I feel I’ve been playing reasonably well around the pitch but there’s been a couple of set-piece issues and obviously there’s been that one big one when we had the opportunity to win that game in Auckland.”

“Having said that I’ve been around the block enough to know that you can’t dwell on these things, especially on a short tour like this. You’ve got to keep working hard on those areas. Like somebody said, the last game put a bit more pressure because the boys did so well at set-piece. But that’s what you want. You don’t want to have it easy. You don’t want somebody to hand you a spot. You want to work hard for it, and that’s personally what I’m trying to do at the minute.”

This game is also notable for being the first time since 1974 that three Ulster player have been named in a Lions starting XV, with Best being joined by Iain Henderson and Jared Payne.

“They are two great fellas to play with and I’ve been very fortunate to have played alongside both of them for many years now, and also to see the way Jared has developed a bit more of a personality since he’s come to Ulster,” said Best, tongue-in-cheek.

“To see the way Hendy had developed, not only as a rugby player, but also in his lineouts and the way he has matured around the place is great. It’s always fantastic to represent the British and Irish Lions, but to do it with two club-mates makes it a little bit more special as well.”

Best appears to have been something of a guiding light for Henderson as well.

“We always knew he was a fantastic talent, but I remember the first day he turned up to pre-season with Ulster, and he was this floppy haired kid with not a lot of meat on him. While he’s had his fair share of injuries over the last couple of years I think he’s really learned to play through niggles, and bumps and bruises, and just the way he has matured his game. A lot of people don’t get to see how hard he works off the pitch in terms of the lineouts, but also in the gym and to make himself bigger and stronger, and just trying to improve. When you get somebody like that who comes in so young and you play alongside him, and you see that improvement, as somebody who plays alongside him, it does make you proud.”

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