Rory Best admits Ireland are not at the level they expected
Ireland captain believes any resurgence in form has to be driven by both coaches and players
Ireland hooker Rory Best is unable to explain dip in form which has affected his team at the Rugby World Cup. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images
By far the best news to emerge from Ireland’s campaign after their scratchy 35-0 win over Russia and yet more bleak post-match injury bulletins was that the entire squad were to be given the weekend off.
Amid the unremitting intensity of three matches in three different venues in a dozen days, and that damaging defeat to the hosts in the middle of it, if ever this squad looked in need of some R&R it is now.
They look a little drained, a little tired. The harder they try, the harder they fall. An anxiety has crept into their game. They do not have the momentum they have been looking for.
They have their qualification for the quarter-finals still in their own hands, but not as they wanted. For such a high-achieving group, they are not where they expected to be.
Ireland’s captain Rory Best is the only survivor in the 31-man squad from 2007, and he clings to the silver lining outlined by Johnny Sexton that unlike the last two World Cups at least the defeat to Japan hasn’t sent them home.
“We beat Australia in 2011, topped a group that nobody expected us to top and everyone was saying: ‘who have we got in the semis?’ because we only had Wales in the quarters. And then we got absolutely hammered!
“It was the same with Argentina [in 2015]. Everyone thought the same thing and booked the flights for the semi-finals. But sport doesn’t work like that, a bit like we found out against Japan.”
“We’re drawing on the positivity of having a lesson to learn in a World Cup. Every team has one at some point. We had ours in the second game. We need to make sure we’re better than that.”
“Everyone really, really wants to reference back to 2007. But this is a completely different group of players, a completely different management, and I see absolutely no similarities to 2007, if ultimately that’s what you’re asking me.”
No, it wasn’t what he was asked, which may, or indeed may not, have been revealing in its own way, and it was said in good spirits.
This is possibly not the most gifted team, man for man, that Ireland have ever had at a World Cup, but it is the most successful one over the preceding four-year cycle. They know that when the collective does not add up to more than the sum of the individual parts they are vulnerable.
“We’re under no illusions that genetically as a country we don’t have that many freaks,” agreed Best on this point. “We have a lot of very, very talented rugby players, but ultimately whenever we’re not quite right I think there’s no point in us talking about our strength as a collective and doing our basics well and working for each other.
“We have a lot of individual talent but at the same time we also know our strength is our collective. And when that doesn’t function, and you fall off by a couple of per cent, you’re going to be susceptible. I think we were under no illusions as to how good Japan were, but also how frustrated we are to have lost that game.”
The contrast between 2018 and this year is stark – Japan inflicting Ireland’s fourth defeat in 2019. And even the captain struggles to explain why this is so.
“I don’t really know. I suppose if we knew that you’d like to think it wouldn’t happen. There have been times when we have allowed mistake upon mistake, and after the England game in the Six Nations we said ‘right, enough’s enough.’ We thought that that would be it, but we allowed it to kind of drift into the rest of that championship.
“When we came in for the start of pre-season we thought it would be right and that England [warm-up] game was a real eye-opener for us. But by and large we started to get better. Then, against Japan, we just allowed that to happen again.
“You can’t do anything about that result now. What you can do, and Johnny has said it already, is [ensure] that the blip for Ireland over the last number of years has happened in quarter-finals, and you don’t get another go after that.”
Best stressed that Ireland have to be better at rectifying mistakes rather than let them mount. He cited the example of recovering from Jacob Stockdale’s misfield earning a five-metre scrum under the Scottish posts within a minute.
This is Best’s last World Cup, and could potentially be for others as well. He believes any resurgence has to be driven by the coaches and the players.
“I think it’s a combination of both. I’ve been involved in dressing-rooms where the coach says it needs to be player-led, but you’ve got to be given something to lead.
“But at the same time I’ve also been in dressing-rooms where the coach dictates everything, and that doesn’t work either because the players ultimately have got to buy into it.
“I think that over the years we’ve got that balance pretty well, and I think now that when it comes to the mistakes against Japan and the way we allowed that to dictate the next moment, that falls on us.
“That’s not a game-plan issue. That’s not a preparation issue. That’s us, for whatever reason, being a little bit mentally off. We’ve chatted a bit about it, and we’ve chatted about how we can be better, and how we need to be better.”
But maybe ease off on the navel contemplation for a weekend.