New captain Rory Best was swept to power by Ireland team-mates

Ireland captain Rory Best (left) and head coach Joe Schmidt pose with the Six Nations trophy
Ireland captain Rory Best (left) and head coach Joe Schmidt pose with the Six Nations trophy

Ireland’s “gentleman farmer” Rory Best earned the right to succeed Paul O’Connell as Test captain thanks in part to hearty endorsement from Joe Schmidt’s squad.

Ulster hooker Best emerged as a main contender to skipper head coach Schmidt’s men into the defence of their RBS 6 Nations crown after Ireland’s players nominated a nucleus of squad representatives.

Best has beaten seasoned campaigners Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony to replace talismanic lock O’Connell as Ireland captain, with boss Schmidt delighted to endorse the 89-cap hooker’s credentials.

“When the coaches and management got together, all we did was really endorse the feeling from the playing group,” said Schmidt.

“He is our most-capped international currently, and his experience and his performances for the team have been first-rate.

“Off the pitch he’s the consummate professional.

“And as a gentleman farmer he’s got lots of time on his hands to commit to the various duties that captaincy requires!”

Ireland’s Six Nations stars submitted their choices to form the squad’s leadership group, and from there the coaching staff mulled over their choice for captain.

Best’s influence and standing within Schmidt’s ranks ensured his name would have featured regularly on those leadership group suggestions.

While tongue-in-cheek, Schmidt’s “gentleman farmer” quip underscores Best’s life outside rugby - grafting hard on the family farm just outside Banbridge.

The homespun hooker’s humility clearly stems from the years of toil in fields of the non-rugby variety, along with dad John and brother Simon, another ex-Ireland front-rower.

O’Connell retired from Test rugby straight after the World Cup, and has since swapped home province Munster for Toulon on the French Riviera.

Best knows full well he must fill a sizeable leadership chasm in light of O’Connell’s absence, but admitted he must not fall into the trap of trying to emulate the former skipper’s approach.

Best revealed O’Connell offered that sage advice for the challenge ahead, reflecting on how he succeeded Brian O’Driscoll in Ireland’s hot-seat.

O’Driscoll had in turn taken the armband from Keith Wood, indicating first that Best has joined exalted company - but second that the 33-year-old must not fear the weight of history.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Best of leading Ireland after O’Connell.

“Speaking to Paul (O’Connell) before, he took over from Brian (O’Driscoll), it was a big challenge stepping into those shoes.

“And for Brian, before that, taking over from Woody (Keith Wood). Every time, there’s a bit of a change in the captaincy, you’re filling big shoes because they’ve been pivotal parts of Irish rugby.

“It’s a challenge, but I think the one thing that certainly Paulie did really well was he didn’t change how he went about things. He got put in there because of how he was around the place.

“You don’t have to reinvent things just because you’re captain. You just keep trying to lead by example.

“We lean very heavily on the senior players like we have done in the past two years under Joe and that will continue.

“There’s some really, really good senior players with experience of captaining sides at international and club level.”