Ireland captain Rory Best not thinking past the World Cup
On this very week before last season’s opener Best considered resigning as captain
Ireland’s Rory Best during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: PA
A year on from the week exactly 12 months ago when, it now transpires, Rory Best considered stepping down as Irish captain before the dramatic opening Six Nations game in Paris, and on the eve of what will probably be his last Six Nations, the 35-year-old has set no time limit on the end of this career.
Asked if he’d given any thought to whether he would be in the same seat on the eve of next year’s tournament following Ireland’s Captain’s Run on the eve of their 2019 Guinness Six nations opener against England, Best maintained he hadn’t.
“Not really. It’s something that I get asked a lot and to be honest I’m contracted to the World Cup and it’s the same answer. I’m really happy with how much I’m enjoying playing at the minute, even moving from Ulster to come down into here. This squad is a cracking squad to be a part of and I’ll probably not make too many decisions until nearer the time.
“But I think when you get to 30 or beyond every year is a bonus and every year you get to sit here as captain of this squad is a year when you can thank your lucky stars, because it is a really privileged position to be in with this great group of players, and to be honest I’ll just keep taking it game by game and judge by how much I’m enjoying and how much I feel I’m playing well.
“Ultimately, the pressure that comes from the way other people in your position are playing makes you drive on to try to be better and to try to improve your performance.”
On this very week before last season’s Six Nations opener against France in Paris, Best considered resigning as Irish captain and stepping away from the team, such was the outcry over his decision to attend the rape trial involving Ulster teammates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding on his ‘down day’ away from the Irish squad, ie the Wednesday before.
Earlier this week, in a BBC documentary by Stephen Watson on the Irish captain called ‘Rory Best - A Life in Rugby’, although Best acknowledges it was “one of the greatest victories” Ireland had achieved in his time on the team, he admitted: “It was probably one of the victories that I enjoyed least with Ireland.”
He added: “I never felt so much pressure around me in that game and I felt that all within the family, because you couldn’t get away from it, and there were a lot of people calling for me to step aside, me to not play and all I could think about during that game was that you just don’t want to give people any more excuses to be calling for your head.”
In the documentary, Joe Schmidt also revealed: “It was a tough start to the Six Nations for Rory for reasons on and off the pitch, and it showed a fair bit of character from him to work his way through that when he probably considered stepping away from the game and stepping away from the captaincy completely. And with the encouragement of teammates behind him I think he did a super job.”
It also seems safe to presume that the encouragement 24/48 hours before that win in Paris a year ago also came from Schmidt himself and the other coaches.
Best has captained Ireland 28 times and, having been persuaded to remain as captain, he led Ireland to the ensuing Grand Slam (only their third in history) and historic first home win over the All Blacks last November - he also led the team to a win over New Zealand in Chicago.
Best believes this Irish team can still improve.
“I think there is still more and we’ve got to find more. There’s no doubt we’ll need it and this is Six Nations rugby, it’s different to the autumn internationals. The autumn internationals is playing a team that’s a little bit unknown. Argentina and New Zealand, we study them but we don’t play against them in Europe in the Six Nations every year.
“You’re not very close neighbours to them. England know us inside out, they probably know us a lot better than the Southern Hemisphere teams do.
“And you’re into competition. None of us ever treat the autumn internationals as friendlies but, ultimately, that’s what they are. This is a competition, a championship and all of that squeezes the pressure on you and creates a different sort of atmosphere. It probably means you have to play to a higher level than we did in November, sure.”
Although decidedly wary of England, from whom he expects huge physicality mixed with the pace in a dangerous back three, when asked if Ireland might have a surprise or two in their locker he said: “Joe has shown over the years that he has a fairly full locker. While we may play something, it may be something that hasn’t been seen before but it will not be something that’s new to us. It’ll have been in our game sheet somewhere.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to try and control the gain line. These little plays that we run come down to the set-piece battle and the gain line battle. If we win those in any match, but especially tomorrow, we put ourselves in with a good chance of winning.”