Rory Best believes that Ireland's World Cup meltdown in Japan was impacted by "too much detail" from the coaches creating "too much tension" in the camp leading up to games.
The retired captain also cites “complacency” when revealing a clearer picture of how the national team’s fortunes went so badly askew in 2019.
“I think we started to become - not dictated to - but we just let Joe do everything,” said Best, speaking at a Specsavers Audiologist event in Dublin yesterday. “The great thing about 2018 was we had our own voice and our own mind. There was that freedom at the end of the week to step into a space to lead. You can’t just turn up at the Aviva stadium at five o’clock ‘Right, it’s our turn to lead.’ You can get a bit lost.
“I think in 2019 that end of the week space started to be filled a bit much with coaches.”
After the disastrous 57-15 defeat to England at Twickenham in August, the Irish leadership group - which includes Best, Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony - approached head coach Joe Schmidt seeking increased player control 24 hours out from games.
No more meetings, they requested, and stop the information overload when players are already struggling to cope.
“After that England defeat we sat down with Joe and said ‘Listen, we trust you implicitly. We know you will get the tactics right. But on the flip side you are going to have to trust us that from Captain’s Run onwards to let us build in our own way.’”
This player driven approach, initially accepted by Schmidt, was abandoned, to Best’s regret, between the Scotland and Japan games at the World Cup, and there followed over complicated preparations before the 46-14 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Tokyo.
Best also feels the team could have been freshened up, with in-form players like Dave Kilcoyne, before the historic loss to the hosts in Shizuoka.
“Looking back, I do think a very, very small level of complacency has to have kicked in,” Best admitted. “You don’t go from 2018 (Six Nations champions, series win in Australia, unbeaten in November) to 2019 (five defeats) without that happening. It might only be one per cent from each player but add all that up over 30 odd players at that level can make a big difference.
“I think that we believed what everyone was saying. You are very quick to say ‘don’t believe what they are saying’ when it is negative but you are not as quick to say that when it is positive.
“We should have been more streetwise. Grand Slam, autumn (beating the All Blacks), swept the World Rugby awards and I think when we went to Portugal we slipped back to where we had been nearly even pre-Joe.
“We (the players) talk about how we nearly wasted those (summer) training camps before that week. It was seen as get the feet up to recover.
“I don’t think we slipped that far back but as a player group I don’t think we did the work that we maybe had done in the 24 months previous to that. Whenever you start to leave little bits undone they will always come back to bite you when you least want them to.
“There has to be a level of complacency.”
Best also revealed the players “were on edge, on edge, on edge” until victory in the opening Pool A match only to feel jaded come the Japan game six days later.
“When we had that Scotland performance we thought ‘We are back to where we were in 2018 and it will just roll on from here.’
“As a player group we needed to be stronger in that space.”
Did it become a suffocating environment?
“I just think (Schmidt) and the other coaches, if the players don’t fill the space, they are going to fill it,” Best replied. “It must be the hardest thing in the world to be a coach because you don’t control what happens (in a game). You can control everything up to that.
“Japan, because of the short turnaround, the Captain’s Run had to become more of a training session because we had things we needed to do in it.”
To clarify, does Best feel that the leaders should have seized control, by relaxing the flow of information, the day before matches?
“Ultimately, me as captain, needs to take a fair bit of that responsibility; were we just happy to go ‘we know how good Joe is and he says it is right, it is right’? Rather than going ‘You know what . . .’ We did challenge him a bit but we should have stepped up more during the Six Nations when it was going wrong and tried to lead a bit more.”
A specific example was the temporary change of coach-led meetings to Thursday evening.
“So from Friday morning there are no meetings. Because everyone is so uptight you can create a bit of craic, play a bit of touch, something just to ease the tension. If you have a meeting on Friday morning it starts to build the tension. All you are doing is starting here and it is only going one way. And then it crashes.”
Spectacularly, as it turned out.
“Too much detail and too much tension too early,” said Best. “If I’d known it was happening, I’d have stood up and said, ‘Look, I don’t think we need this.’ Joe just needed to trust . . . he’s the best coach I’ve ever worked with bar nobody, but just trust that it’s there.
“It (the quarter-final) was such a big game for him, such a big game for me. We both knew that lose and we're out, we're done, our careers over. Well, he might come back in now but certainly our Irish careers' were over. That creates tension in itself. You want to make sure no stone is left unturned, and sometimes by doing that you end up spoon feeding the players and they almost go 'Right, that's been said so I don’t need to mentally prepare for it.'
So, it seems, the devil was in the amount of detail.
The flood of pre-match detail from Irish coaches also happened before the quarter-final, as Best explains: “The All Blacks was a really funny one because that was probably the best we’d trained in, I can’t remember how long . . . Again, you can’t start your match build up on the morning of the game. It’s got to be more about letting the boys breathe and have a little fun.
“If you ease it off people will build in their own way over the 24 hours. After the England game we said we would do that and then we took our foot off the gas and allowed it to be ‘Aw look, we won’t do the meeting Thursday, we’ll do it Friday’ and I probably just went ‘Yeah, I trust you.’
“It’s all about easing and breaking the tension a little bit.
“Then once we have the team meeting you get on the bus to the game and it’s the first time you’ve heard Joe speak in 24 hours and it’s really empowering and gets you ready to go. Whatever happened, the morning of the New Zealand game, the coaches wanted a huddle and to talk through some plays. I think there was a little worry that we hadn’t emphasised something enough.”
Schmidt has not mentioned this issue on his recent widespread media book tour.
"We had one (meeting) before that England game where we talked about the threat of Ben Youngs, and all that happened was we talked about the threat and we all got so hyped up and then Ben made I don't know how many line breaks just by scooting," Best continued. "Exactly what we talked about.
“I felt that probably happened the morning of the New Zealand game. It took three or four people to drop passes before there was a big ripple of laughter.”
Schmidt's book did reveal that Best considered retirement in the wake of public outcry to the Ireland captain attending the Belfast rape trial of former Ulster teammates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding - both men were subsequently found not guilty - the week of the opening Six Nations game against France in 2018.
“You consider (retirement) because you want to do what’s best for the team. And at that stage there was a lot going on. I sort of felt the best thing for the team and for me was to retire. Ultimately, that’s what it was all based on, what was best for the team.
“And when he (Schmidt) said ‘No, we need you in Paris’ I didn’t give it a second thought because that was the reassurance you need to go ‘Right, this is the best thing for the squad.’ That is what ultimately drives you forward because you like to think you are an unselfish player and when you are that you would sacrifice anything for Ireland to succeed.”
Best is currently working on his own autobiography with the journalist Gavin Mairs. It’s not being published until March 2020 simply because they could not find the time to properly complete it for the Christmas market.
“When you’re 37, you don’t want to give anyone any excuse: ‘Oh, he’s 37 and he’s writing a book, is that why he’s not playing well, he’s old, is his priority playing for Ireland or making money?’ I didn’t want any of that, I wanted to focus on what was going to be my last tournament, my last representation of Ireland.”
He was unaware that Schmidt was working on the underwhelming ‘Ordinary Joe’ memoir throughout the failed Japan campaign.
Best on defeat to Japan at the Ecopa stadium
“The logic of what we did at the time felt right: let’s just go really heavy at the first two games and then we can take two weeks into the next game, make a lot of changes and it is only now you look back and you see the real attrition in that first game (Scotland), the six day turnaround, with the move, the heat and everything.
“There is always in a team a few people who are really close (to selection), really nip and tuck, and someone might be a better player but someone is coming behind them who is on fire, and is playing above what they can do. You wonder whether a couple of those changes could have happened but, again, you are dealing in hindsight.
“I think as a player you trust the coach and that’s what we do. I think now we look and think could we have freshened the front five in some shape or form?
“If you inject Dave Kilcoyne to start that game, that burst of energy, someone coming in with the carrot of ‘you might be a starter for us - you are playing in the big game’ and the ripple effect that creates.
“For me personally it was tough. It’s a difficult one, at 37, playing 80 minutes to six days later turning around and playing again but then if you do not play your captain what does that say? If you don’t pick your strongest team what are you saying? I think we looked like a group of players who needed an injection of energy from somewhere and we just didn’t quite get it.”