Rory Best reaches the end of a long road
‘I’m really upset with the thought I’ll never pull on a green jersey again,’ says retiring captain
Rory Best: “It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster of emotion, pressure, everything.”
The end of the road, the end of a journey and, in Rory Best’s case, the end of his career. This was not remotely how he or the rest of this team, Ireland’s greatest ever, would have wanted it to finish, but not everyone gets to write their own exits.
The enormous, emotion-charged salute to him by the Irish supporters in Tokyo Stadium - there must have been 15,000-20,000 here - would have been scant consolation.
“That was an incredibly tough test match today,” he reflected in the post-match press conference. “Obviously when you play the All Blacks at this stage of the competition they are incredibly focused. There is a lot of pressure on them and I think we allowed them to get a good start which took a little bit of the pressure off.”
In a relatively candid assessment of this defeat and, perhaps, the causes of it, given its proximity to the full-time whistle, Best continued: “In terms of quarter-finals, I’m not sure, everyone talks about the pressure that’s on the All Blacks before quarter-finals but when you haven’t won one and you feel you have a great coaching set-up and a great group of players then maybe you put too much pressure on.
“Maybe we have been looking at this for too long and been so focused on it that we forgot to win some of the little battles along the way over the last 12 months. We wanted to set a bar than no Irish team has met before. We’ve done that numerous times over the six and half years with Joe.
“It was an onus on us to win a quarter-final because then it becomes a habit. We talked about it years ago. I remember Paul O’Connell saying when we beat France three times in a row leading into the last World Cup that it then becomes a habit because you expect to beat France. Before that they always seemed to be the team that stopped us winning Grand Slams.
“With Joe, he helped take away a bit of the fear factor that the All Blacks held in the last three Tests. But when you do that they see you coming a lot more and when you get the best team in the world fully prepared and fully focused on you it becomes that little bit more difficult. And when you make a few errors and you let them get their tails up it becomes even more difficult.”
Asked how he felt after his 124th and last test, Best blew heavily and admitted: “Tired, sore, upset. Right now you focus on just what’s gone and we’re incredibly disappointed. We’ve got a lot of big characters in that changing room and it’s not often that you get deadly silence.”
His voice now croaking with emotion, he added: “There were some of those big men in tears. That’s what happens when everybody puts their heart and soul into something. You hope you’ll get time to reflect on what’s been an incredible few years for this team.
“This World Cup, we’ve had some big occasions. There was so much pressure put on at the start. We don’t start tournaments well but we produced a big performance against Scotland. We dipped against Japan, who look like they are going from strength to strength. They’re a fantastic team.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster of emotion, pressure, everything. But what’s been really good is the way this group has stuck together. We went into this game fully believing, expecting to win - but it just didn’t happen for us.
“But this World Cup in Japan has a lot of things - upsets, weather, some high performances. Credit has to go to Japanese Rugby and World Rugby for having, I suppose, the balls to bring it here. It’s been a fantastic tournament and we’re upset to be leaving it.
“I’m really upset with the thought I’ll never pull on a green jersey again except to go and support.”
Such was the heartfelt honesty that the mood in a room crammed with over 100 journalists changed palpably. With that, Best and Schmidt stood up for the last time from their last press conference.
And pretty much everyone in the room clapped them on their way.