Best: 'Joe has evolved the squad, now it's much harder to pick the 23'
Ireland captain Rory Best believes Joe Schmidt's men have come through a difficult year in a much better place.
Welcoming the New Zealander's decision to commit to the cause until the 2019 World Cup, the 34-year-old Ulster hooker reckons the squad is now far stronger than it was before injuries forced the coach into exploring new options over the course of the past 12 months.
The IRFU confirmed on Monday that Schmidt has signed on for two more years, giving the squad a boost ahead of their trip to Chicago next week to take on the world champions.
Best believes that the continuity of having the same man in charge will be a boost to a new-look Ireland team in the coming seasons.
"Joe's brilliant. It's attention to detail, but it's not trying to be too fancy, it's that saying 'you have to walk before you can run'," he said.
"He is very much about that, if you don't do the basics of pass accuracy, the breakdown, your ball-carries. If you don't get those nailed, you can have all the best moves in the world and they're not going to come off.
"That's what he's all about. The way you've seen our squad grow; this time last year, post-World Cup we were decimated.
"We'd lost Paulie (O'Connell) to injury, but also to retirement, you'd Pete (O'Mahony), Sean O'Brien, Johnny Sexton and through that Six Nations and summer tour we kept getting injury after injury and we managed to come third in the Six Nations and create history in South Africa, which nobody gave us a chance of doing.
"Without making a song and dance about how it's out with the old and in with the new, he has evolved the squad.
"Traditionally it was easy with Ireland to pick the 23, now it's a lot harder because there's a lot of competition which he has created and definitely made the best out of a bad situation. Hopefully that will serve us well."
Next week's clash against New Zealand at Soldier Field is a daunting one, but Best is confident about what his side can achieve against a team going for their 19th win on the trot.
"We're going there to win the game," he said yesterday at an event to launch next week's JN Wine Champion Chase at Down Royal.
"It's going to be very difficult, but ultimately, we don't take the field against anyone expecting anything else but a win.
"They're the one team where you'll get a couple of chances and you basically have to take almost every chance because you know they will create and they are very, very good at putting teams away.
"For us, it's about making sure we get our stuff right, we know them inside out and we try to stop them as best we can. We're not looking beyond winning."
Focusing on rugby is something of a relief for everyone involved this week after the tragic death of Anthony Foley. Best travelled to Killaloe to pay his respects to a former team-mate.
On Friday, Munster travel to Belfast to take on Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium, where 'The Fields of Athenry' was sung during northern province's win over Exeter last weekend.
"That shows the impact he had on the wider rugby community, but also how much of a rugby family there is and how the Ulster supporters felt the Munster supporters' pain and wanted to do something.
"What better way to do it than to sing a song that is so synonymous with Munster's success," Best explained.
"He was great craic, he was the heart and the soul of the place, always slagging.
"When you went out on to the rugby pitch, he didn't start in those Ireland camps but I remember one scrum session and it was mainly the Munster pack that were playing, but he brought what was essentially a non-Munster pack and said 'let's sew it into the these guys at scrum-time. I'm going to keep in here, let's try and walk them'.
"That was the level that he set, even though he wasn't playing.
"A lot of people when they're not picked, they kind of go 'let's get through this', but he was going 'right, let's test these boys'.
"Looking back now, you could see why Munster were so good. If that was the sort of level that he expected from everyone, they fed off it."