Rory Best can now count on one finger the number of times he’s missed playing rugby for Ireland.
It happened around teatime on Saturday, sitting inside the ITV studio at Aviva Stadium, stuck in another moment of a Grand Slam victory, taking down the old enemy again to boot.
“It’s absolutely incredible, when you’ve done it before, you understand the achievement,” he says. “We’d won two Grand Slams, in my 15 years, but only four Grand Slams in what 120 years? That shows you hard it is, how difficult, how you can appreciate the magnitude of the feat.
“I don’t think there’s been any time I wished I was still playing, when the matches are actually on, but when that final whistle went, the crowd going mad, the players walking around, that’s the moment you miss, when you wish you were still playing.”
So, no longer the last Irish captain of a Grand Slam-winning team, and therein lies a part of the joy: “I know some players might think, if they [Ireland] aren’t going well, then ‘it shows they miss me’.
“I’m very much of the opinion you create that piece of history along the way, being the last Irish captain to lift the Grand Slam, then you want somebody else to beat it, that’s how you want your team to succeed. Especially to know that it’s happened with a lot of players I was involved with, a good friend of mine as captain.”
Best is indeed beaming in the aftermath, back at the scene of the event on Monday afternoon to talk about the next challenge of his own, a 350km charity walk in May, from Aviva Stadium to Cong in Co Mayo, to raise money for Cancer Fund for Children.
It’s no secret any more what Ireland’s next rugby challenge is, and Best believes there’s no harm in talking openly about it, the how and why Ireland can win.
“The first things is to enjoy where they are right now, Grand Slam champions don’t come around very often,” he says, before talking World Cup prospects.
“Out from 2019, we could always say we realistically had a chance. The difference with this team is they’re showing a level of consistency and depth. Before, there was a little more reliance on two or three players, playing in form. What happened to us in 2019 is one or two players lost some form, or got injured, and suddenly you’re scrapping to get momentum back.
“Whereas with this team, if someone is not playing well, it seems there’s two or three behind them who can step in. You can also pick the form player, and not feel you’re weakening the team on the team sheet.”
Saturday’s display at home offers proof too of a team capable of delivering under pressure: “We knew, going to Twickenham [in 2018], it’s always difficult. We didn’t have the added pressure of having to do it in our own stadium. So I think what really impressed me, and the difference compared to other teams, is that they can always find another gear.
“Before, when we struggled, we struggled the whole way through, and invariably lost some of those games. This team, even when they’re now playing the best rugby, find a pocket of time during the game where they just find another gear, drive the game away from you. That reminds you of the brilliant New Zealand teams. Once they go more than a score ahead, you feel it’s over, and that’s what the best teams in the world have.
“Being in the studio with Clive Woodward on Saturday, he was saying if this was the England team, and he was still involved, they would be talking about winning the World Cup. I can’t remember back to what exactly they [England] were saying in 2003, and I don’t think you have to necessarily shout from the rooftops, ‘we’re going to win the World Cup’, but if someone asks the question, of course, when you’ve beaten the top three teams in the world, New Zealand, South Africa and France.
“You just have to understand how we got here, the last 24 months especially, and how to keep getting better. To win the World Cup you need depth, which we have, but ultimately you need players in form, and that’s ultimately where we fell down four years ago, too many players fell out of form.”
Successive Grand Slams for the Ireland under-20s capped off an unprecedented weekend for Irish rugby, although Best believes there is always scope for improvement.
“I think they only fear is that if there are any cracks there, Leinster will paper over those. If you look at the squad for Saturday, was it 17 Leinster players? Whenever Pete [O’Mahony[ went off it become a Leinster pack. Look at the under-20s, very heavily dominated from Leinster.
“The Irish system is brilliant, is the envy of a lot of unions, my only worry is, is Leinster’s success papering over some cracks in the other provinces? That’s the only potential flaw I see at the moment.”
Best’s charity walk, Miles 2 Mayo, is aimed at raising €2 million in funds for the building of Daisy Lodge in Cong, similar to Newcastle, Co Down, a therapeutic short break centre for children diagnosed with cancer.
For more see www.rorysmiles2mayo.com