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Dark clouds gather as Ireland captain Rory Best runs out of road

Faltering lineout at Twickenham points to 37-year-old becoming a serious liability

Rory Best endured a torrid afternoon at Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Not dark yet, but it’s getting there. Debate surrounding the Ireland captaincy has been ignited by Saturday’s 57-15 humiliation at Twickenham. If not for the obvious reasons – Rory Best’s eight lineouts are listed below – then human physiology.

Athletes grow old before our eyes. Most players run out of steam around 34, 35-years-old with special cases kept on while the decline edges towards freefall. Best, Ireland’s most decorated leader, has been patched up and sent back into the arena despite turning 37 this month. He responded with a performance perilously close to his worst ever in a green jersey.

Paul O’Connell was playing some of the best rugby of his life when the 35-year-old led Ireland into the 2015 World Cup. There was no choice but to hope O’Connell’s ageing ligaments wouldn’t snap off the bone.

That’s not the case in 2019. Certainly not after Manu Tuilagi’s devastating runs came mainly off the platform gifted by Ireland’s set piece.

Sean Cronin looks on after Peter O’Mahony can’t take his throw at Twickenham. photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Best’s leadership becomes a liability if he continues to erode Ireland’s foundation stone for scoring points: the lineout.

The Armagh man recently explained why he doesn’t sing Ireland’s Call before games. As a teenager playing for Ireland schools, Best belted it out and his heart rate was still racing when it came the first lineout, which he flung well over the jumper’s finger tips.

Best is dead on; his last ever first throw at Twickenham was plucked from the sky by a fully stretched Iain Henderson. Maro Itoje, in O’Connell peak mode, devoured that Irish maul but we had ourselves a game.

Seven floated balloons later we had ourselves a rout.

“A combination of a couple of throws not right, a couple of calls and a couple of movements a bit slow,” was how Best described the mess that was five of his eight lineouts.

The Ireland captain clearly felt the need not to shoulder the entire burden – Henderson was the caller - but two desperate throws led to the killer England tries.

“The line was laboured coming in,” Best endeavoured to explain. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again. When you speed it up you don’t give the team pictures. It is a lot easier to win the ball when they are not all over you.

“When you look at some of those lineouts in the first half – they had people everywhere and then people get a little bit edgy.”

- The Best Lineouts -

14 minutes: Henderson takes Best’s confident throw as the Irish maul walks into English territory.

15 minutes: Itoje’s spoiler hand disrupts a poor throw to Henderson as an excellent scoring position is ruined.

19 minutes: Best flings over the entire row of bodies but Tadhg Furlong recues the situation.

21 minutes: A quick throw finds Peter O’Mahony, whose off the top ball launches an ideal attack that is ended by Billy Vunipola turning over Ross Byrne.

31 minutes: England’s tactic of lifting George Kruis at the front to block Best’s view of the intended target pays off as Itoje slaps ball away from O’Mahony, with Tom Curry gathering possession outside his 22.

34 minutes: 10 metres from Ireland’s line Kruis goes straight upwards for a clean catch over Henderson (poorly lifted by Jean Kleyn). It leads to the scrum that delivers Tuilagi’s try. 

41 minutes: Quick throw to O’Mahony. Ball goes wide but Jacob Stockdale, who is easily dispossessed on the ground by Tuilagi.

44 minutes: Best appears unclear what call Jack McGrath has relayed to him. Throwing well over Henderson, Sam Underhill charges into Ireland’s 22 before Itoje gallops under the posts. 

Best’s throwing malfunctions are nothing new; he went on two Lions tours (2013 and 2017) yet featured in zero Test matches due to this very concern.

Maro Itoje steals an Irish lineout at Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

It’s highly unlikely that the Ireland coaches will turn to Sean Cronin. Schmidt holds the evidence of Rome during the Six Nations and three miscued lineouts on Saturday, despite Toner’s presence, to avoid ever starting the Leinster hooker.

So, the alternative is to give Niall Scannell the keys to the set piece and make Peter O’Mahony or Johnny Sexton the new captain. Either way, a serious conversation is needed between Schmidt, Simon Easterby and Andy Farrell (who was embroiled in the Sam Burgess selection for England in 2015).

Best is probably too old to be rolled out again this Saturday at The Principality Stadium but he is either sent into early retirement or given a chance to atone. He’s earned the latter but no more than one opportunity because turning to Scannell or Cronin in mid-October could have disastrous consequences.

Ireland find themselves in the most precarious of situations. No passengers has long been Schmidt’s rule of thumb. The time has come for the Kiwi to reveal his ruthless streak. If not Best, somebody has to pay the price.