England v Ireland: Best ready to lead from the front
“It’s not just the playing group, it’s the coaches, the management, everyone strives for perfection”
Rory Best: “We expect them to do what they have been doing and that is producing big performances, they’ve done it over the last couple of years and we expect nothing less.”
Rory Best and the Irish squad completed a light and light-hearted captain’s run as they familiarised themselves with their Twickenham surrounds in advance of tomorrow’s tilt at the Grand Slam against England, on the one hand intent on treating this like any other game, and on the other knowing full it is anything but.
“There’s obviously a lot of nervous energy around, it is a big game,” said the captain. “You have to try and treat it like just another game and everyone’s aware of the significance it has for Irish rugby and this group of players. There’s nervous energy but it’s also very, very exciting because you want to pit yourself against the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere and you want to put yourself in the position to win things.
“We’ve done that, now, by and large. We’ve won the championship after pitting ourselves against four of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere and now we have an opportunity to come here and pit ourselves against what has been, in the last couple of years, the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.
“It’s a challenge for us and it is one we’re excited about but obviously, when you play in big games you get nervous and that’s what’s there at the minute.”
Best was a replacement in the Millennium Stadium when Ireland sealed the deal in 2009 courtesy of that nerve-wracking 17-15 win over Wales, with Rob Kearney the only surviving starter.
In theory, that should be a very useful experience for the Irish captain, although he was perhaps only half joking when he said: “It’s hard to remember that far back at this stage. I suppose the big memories from 2009, you look at the people who had experience and obviously in ‘09 no one had experienced winning a Grand Slam and no one had experienced winning a championship in that squad.
“But it was just about how the senior players and key players in the group conducted themselves and how they filled you with confidence that we were ready to go back then. It has to be a little bit the same now. There are going to be some young guys in there who are going to look to see how the likes of Johnny, Conor, Pete and Earlsy, Cian, guys who have played a lot of rugby, to see how they are. It’s important that we go through the same routine that we have for the previous four games.”
As captain, needless to say, this is altogether different, and Best admitted he feels more pressure personally.
“There’s always more pressure when you start, then there’s a little more pressure when you’re captain as well. In ‘09 when you were on the subs bench, you don’t know if you’re going to come on in the 1st minute, the 40th, the 79th, if you’re going to come on at all.
“Whereas, being here now and getting ready to start this game, you know by and large what your role is going to be right up until the kick-off. You don’t know what’s going to happen after that but you can prepare and plan for that. In one way, it’s a bit more nervous because you’re taking to the field and on the other hand, you can take solace in the fact that you can prepare and get ready to start a big game.”
There was a desperation in 2009 to end a 61-year wait for a Slam in 2009, not to mention a 24-year gap since the previous title success, whereas not only is the gap not so extensive now, but Ireland have already claimed a third title in five years.
Yet Best maintained that desperation is “something similar”, adding: “You work really hard to get yourself this opportunity. Four wins in a row in the Six Nations, as has been proven over the years, is really difficult to do and this final hurdle. We know our process, we know what we need to do to produce our performance. People can use words like desperate and all of this, when you look at how competitive this group is, how much we want to win things and how much we always want to win things to improve and get better.
“It’s not just the playing group, it’s the coaches, the management, everyone strives for perfection. Look, it’s impossible in a game where we don’t control the opposition but that’s what we all strive for. If you want to say we’re desperate to get there you can, but we know we have to get very close to it (perfection) tomorrow.”
Ireland having denied English sides who’d already clinched the title on the final weekend at home in 2001, 2011 and last year, this is a mirror image of those games. This time it will be England playing for pride in front of their home fans and intent on denying Ireland on their own turf.
“England are a quality side, anyone who disputes that, it’s madness,” said Best. “If you look over the last couple of years under Eddie Jones, especially here, they have yet to lose here under him. I’ve played here a few times and I know how tough it’s going to be anyway. We expect them to do what they have been doing and that’s producing big performances. They’ve done it over the last couple of years and we expect nothing less tomorrow.
“I think all this talk of backlash and what have you, I think for players it’s not really important for them. It will be about making sure that they’re ready to play a game and win a game. It’s basically the same for us. I’ve played here a few times and I know how tough it’s going to be anyway.
“We expect them to do what they have been doing and that is producing big performances, they’ve done it over the last couple of years and we expect nothing less. I think all this talk of backlash and what have you, I think for players it’s not really important, it’s about being ready to play the game and it’s basically the same for us.”