Ireland v Wales: Best has no concerns over Sexton’s fitness
Ireland outhalf needed treatment on his back before Friday's Captain’s Run
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton receives attention during the Captain’s Run. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Such is the way the media and public alike fret over Johnny Sexton like mother hens that any sign of discomfort with the hugely influential outhalf prompts alarm, but Rory Best made light of Sexton having some treatment on his back at the start of the eve-of-match Captain’s Run in the Aviva Stadium before Saturday’s NatWest Six Nations match with Wales.
“He was grand, because he’s getting a bit older now he just needed a little bit longer to warm up,” said Best with a smile. “But he came into the tail-end of the session. He let the subs run at the start and then the starters finished off. So yeah, he was fine. He finished the session.”
So no concerns?
Ireland haven’t lost at home in a dozen games in the Six Nations dating back to a 12-6 defeat to England in February 2013. The last 11 have been under Joe Schmidt’s watch, and the only blemish was a 16-16 draw against Wales two years ago. But that doesn’t make Ireland any less desperate to win.
“Yeah, we think we’re always desperate to win and always desperate for form,” said Best. “We’re under no illusions now that the championship from tomorrow onwards takes a massive step up for us. To keep that record alive is going to be a really tough challenge for us. But ultimately it’s test match rugby, you want to test yourself against the best, and Wales have shown themselves to be a real handful. We’ve got to perform to a level better than we have previously in this tournament.”
Wales have a pretty decent record of late against Ireland, only losing one and drawing one of the last five meetings and going back further have only lost three of the last 10 meetings. Yet Best rejected any notion that they are in some way a bogey team for Ireland.
“I don’t think so. There’s been some really tough games. The game last year was a one-score game right up until the end. It looked a bit one-sided,” he said in reference to the 22-9 scoreline which was augmented by a late charge down try - and that after an Irish try off a lineout drive had been ruled out.
“The maul try that got penalised, it doesn’t matter now, but when you’re playing the top teams it’s down to fine margins. Last year we lost a couple of those through our own doing and also good play by Wales. We’ve got to win as many of those fine battles as we can tomorrow.”
In winning his 109th cap, Best will overtake Paul O’Connell in becoming Ireland’s third most capped player of all time behind Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara.
“I suppose it means I’ve been around for a fair time as well; whenever you surpass, and it happens along the way, people like Stringer, Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, class players and players that certainly in my latter days of school and early days of professional rugby I massively looked up to. And then to have played alongside somebody like Paulie and now to have played more times for Ireland than he has, it’s just another one of those little milestones you’ll look back on when you finish up with immense pride.
“What he brought to Irish rugby and the amount of times he played is a feat in itself. It’s not something I’m overly focusing on at the minute, but I think to go past him is obviously an unbelievable achievement.”
Whereas Best is starting his 49th Six Nations match, alongside him the 22-year-old Andrew Porter will be making his first start in the tournament.
“He doesn’t look overly young (given) the size of him. He’s taken to tighthead and international rugby really well. He’s always learning, he’s inseparable from Cian Healy at the minute, and it’s the same at Leinster.
He’s a young, enthusiastic kid that just wants to learn, and he keeps getting better and better. The way he prepares and goes to training, he’s ready to take this step. Having Tadhg there was a lovely buffer to let Andrew come on and just get used to the level, but sometimes your chance comes at someone else’s misfortune. But the last five minutes was probably arguably his best five minutes, which is exciting and says a lot about his conditioning.”
The game is also notable for it being Warren Gatland’s 100th test as head coach of Wales, in addition to his 38 tests with Ireland and six with the Lions, which Best attributed to his adaptability.
“I think there’s no doubt - and you can see it in the way Wales have evolved in the last couple of years - that he’s adaptable. To stay for 100 caps at this level is a fantastic feat, and I think we’re very quick to praise players when it happens, so for a coach to be around long enough to do that is a brilliant achievement, and hopefully he can get a win in his 101st game to celebrate that,” said Best with a smile. “That’s ultimately a fantastic achievement, you don’t want to take that away, but obviously we don’t want to give them a win to celebrate it.
“He’s very prepared, and when he speaks to you as a squad, he references back to when he played, and he didn’t want to be out on the pitch for long periods of time. As a player you want sessions to be short, you want to feel you’ve got something from it, and that’s the way he coaches. And if you can get that it keeps the players interested, and if you can keep the players interested you can stay around, because you get performances and success.”
When asked if Ireland were the best team Wales would face, Gatland said ‘no’ and Best took no great umbrage. “Look I think he’s entitled to his opinion. He’s coming off the back of having just played England and their record over the last two years speaks for itself.
“But we’ll not really pay any heed to that. We’ll hope that through our performances tomorrow that we can change his mind. And if it doesn’t change his mind tomorrow but we win, we’ll not really be that bothered.”