A shock omission from Warren Gatland’s original 37-man squad, Rory Best has had a rollercoaster past few weeks. Firstly there was the initial disappointment of missing out for a second time with the Lions, followed by the relief of being called up to replace the suspended Dylan Hartley. He was then given the honour of captaining the Lions in Canberra, but now Best finds himself on receiving end of fierce criticism as the Lions tasted defeat for the first time down under against Jake White’s impeccably organised Brumbies.
By Best’s own admission the performance wasn’t up to scratch, and the Brumbies were ‘hungrier’ in taking the game to the Lions. And while it’s not often helpful to isolate one area of the game, on this occasion eight lost line-outs are a pretty good indication of where it all went wrong for the Lions in Canberra, and for that Best has already taken a large share of the responsibility for the misfiring set-piece.
“We definitely got nervy and simple little units miss-fired. At this level if you can’t secure ball you will always be under pressure,” he said. Perhaps his troubles in the set-piece highlight the main reason for Gatland not selecting Best in the first place.
The Ulster hooker had paid the price for Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations campaign and an indifferent performance for Ulster in their Heineken quarter-final played against Saracens at Twickenham, another big occasion on which Best had struggled with his darts to the detriment of Ulster’s chances of progression.
Those of us who watch Best week in week out at Ravenhill in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup are well aware of his qualities. On current form his throwing admittedly makes him a risky inclusion should he be required in the tests, however at his best the former Ulster and Ireland captain would feature in most conversations about genuinely world class hookers. There aren’t too many about in truth.
Over the course of a season Best’s percentages throwing in would stand up against most Northern Hemisphere hookers. But it is his apparent tendency to let his standards drop in pressure situations at the moment that provides a real worry for Gatland, and presumably Joe Schmidt also. It is a trend which is traced back through the Six Nations. Only 55% of line-outs reached their intended target as Ireland slipped to their first ever championship loss to Italy, and there were similar problems against England, France and Scotland.
Of course, the hooker is often the scapegoat, but collectively the pack will take responsibility for their set-piece troubles against the Brumbies. To solely place blame on the hooker is to misunderstand the complexities of the modern line-out. Any number of things can go wrong in this aspect of the game, and we must also credit the opposition for their effective spoiling plays.
Tom Youngs looks odds on to grab a test jersey this weekend but even his throwing is questionable – although admittedly it has been the best of the three hookers thus far on tour. And Hibbard, for his part, had excelled during the Six Nations but has also found the going tough on tour at times. So with Best third in line, there is still the distinct possibility that he could yet feature in the tests should form, injury or suspension rule the current incumbents out at any stage. And should he be called upon, I’d back him to overcome his nerves in the pressure situations and play a pivotal role for the Lions as he has done on countless occasions for province and country.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)