Best foot forward
New captain vows to be his own man but refuses to make any bold predictions ahead of first campaign at the helm
Published 21/01/2016 | 02:30
Rory Best has always been marked out as officer material, and yesterday's confirmation of his Ireland captaincy was recognition of his efforts over a stellar international career.
However, Joe Schmidt's decision to name him as Paul O'Connell's successor was far more layered than a pat on the head for a job well done over 89 caps. It was a shrewd choice by a coach on the lookout for a respected leadership figure who commands respect inside and outside the squad.
During the pre-Christmas camp, senior players were asked to give their input to the captaincy call, before the coaching ticket got together to assess their options.
With Peter O'Mahony - many people's favourite to lead the side to the next World Cup - out of the running, the call came down to one of Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Best.
Ultimately, it was Schmidt's call, and the coach chose the elder statesman of that quartet; one of only three players who remain from the team that played at the 2007 World Cup and a man who has been a key leader in the Ireland squad for the last six seasons or more.
"I got the call a few days ago, to say they'd been discussing it as a management group and a coaching staff and they'd decided that they'd like me to be the captain if I'd like to do it," Best explained in an interview with Sky Sports News yesterday.
"I was just sitting at home and was sworn to secrecy - it's been a tough enough secret to keep with people wondering why I'd been a little bit grumpy or preoccupied. It's a massive honour for me to do it.
"I know how unbelievably lucky I am to do it, not just to be captain but to take over from a captain like Paulie but also to be a captain in a squad and a group that has so many good leaders, good captains and players in it.
"It's something that I'm really looking forward to. I know the boys will be a really good bunch, they're really professional and they'll go about their business."
The Armagh native said the honour was particularly important for his family, who have lived through a rollercoaster career with him.
"It was hugely emotional and in telling family in the last day or so, it's been emotional for them," he said.
"They've been through a lot of stuff, my career hasn't exactly been straightforward, there's been a lot of highs, don't get me wrong, but there's been a few lows along the way and to add this to the CV is a massive honour and I'm delighted to be captain of Ireland."
Some have expressed concerns that the challenge for Best will be combining his primary role at lineout time with the additional responsibilities will be a burden on the hooker, but he is in his second stint as Ulster captain and should be able to shoulder that without too much hassle.
Best will look forward to the support of the newly constructed leadership group and knows that the other senior players will help as he develops his captaincy style.
"They'll make my life reasonably easy; the big thing for me is to make sure that I stick to the values and characteristics that I've shown to be brought in as captain and that I don't try to be something that's Paul O'Connell or Brian O'Driscoll," he said.
"I have to be the captain that I am and that Joe and the coaches have seen in me."
The new skipper couldn't have asked for a tougher start to his tenure, with Ireland's home fixture against Wales on Sunday fortnight followed by away trips to face France and England who are both beginning life under new coaching teams. It was no surprise, then, that the 33-year-old wasn't making any bold pronouncements about Ireland's prospects of a third Six Nations title in a row.
"It's something that we haven't talked a whole lot about," he said. "The one big thing that Joe has emphasised since he first came in is about consistency; that Ireland are seen as a team that can produce big performances, but can't produce it game on game, week on week.
"He has changed that dramatically for us, by focusing on the next game. We've an unbelievably tough start against Wales in Dublin and that's all we'll be focused on.
"If we take it game by game, ultimately we'll see where we are in the shake-up, but it's a tough competition.
"There hasn't been a Grand Slam in a good few years, because there's so many quality teams and there's also a lot of unknowns in two new coaches, Scotland are really finding their feet under Vern Cotter and I've been in Ireland teams that have lost to Italy, so we know how tough that can be.
"To start talking about three-in-a-row would be slightly premature, but for us it's about the job in hand which is in two weeks' time against Wales."