Rory Best reveals how he underestimated the Ireland captaincy during Six Nations
Best rues lost Six Nations opportunity for Ireland
Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30
Five weeks have elapsed since the curtain came down on Rory Best's first Six Nations as Ireland captain and, while he has switched fully into Ulster mode, the hooker still has regrets.
It was, he says, an enjoyable experience to lead his country but the perfectionist within has lingering doubts about whether his team got everything they could out of the tournament.
For all that the 33-year-old had a rich career's worth of experience, there were still elements of the role that came as something of a surprise.
"I knew it was a full-on tournament," he reflected. "To captain the side, you just don't get a break from it, and it's five games, so it's not an extended period, but there's definitely that bit more pressure on you.
"Particularly if you get to the second or third game and don't get the win, you carry that little more expectation so you can't just shrug it off; you know that you have to perform in the next game.
"I probably underestimated that a little bit, because I'd been involved in the senior player group and everything, I thought it would just be the same as the World Cup; you turn up and play and everyone else would go - but there is a little bit more of a sideshow if you like, the pressure and everything.
"I enjoyed it and really enjoyed working alongside Joe (Schmidt) as captain, and the other senior players."
At the end of the tournament, Best revealed that he felt Ireland let their standards slip to accommodate the transition of new faces into the squad and yesterday he reflected on a missed opportunity in Paris as his biggest regret.
"When you hook back in hindsight, that France game, we did well for 20 minutes, and then just sat back and thought, 'This is easy'," he said.
"If you do that - especially away in France, you're not going to perform and I think now the Six Nations is over and you see their results since beating us - they were there for the beating and it's not often you take the foot off the gas against France and still almost sneak the win.
"For me that was the most disappointing game in the whole championship.
"Against Wales, we started well, then from 16-13 down to get the draw we were reasonably pleased with that, England - we let them in with two soft tries, but there were elements of that game that were positive, same with Wales game, whereas France - the weather didn't help, it was hard to find anything good out of that."
Still, he has had to move on and on Saturday he'll renew acquaintances with his international colleagues when Leinster travel up the M1 for a game that will define Ulster's season.
For those who began training on June 29 for the World Cup, this is a seemingly never-ending season but the upside of provincial disappointment in Europe is that the Ireland front-liners have been able to take a break in recent weeks.
"Nothing annoys you more than sitting at home watching these (European) games," Best admitted. "But yeah, the flip side; in a World Cup year you don't get much time (off) and whoever plays that Third Test in South Africa, will be two or three days short of a full 12 months going from the start of the World Cup preparation, so to get little windows in the middle of the season, to take a long weekend off, let your body have some time when it's not having the crap beaten out of it, it's a silver lining."
Four years ago, these two teams competed in the Heineken Cup final in a season that culminated in disaster for Ireland in Hamilton.
"I didn't feel great after we lost 60-0 at the end of it," Best said with a wry smile when asked to compare.
"But look, I just remember the tail end of it, and because we were involved in Europe right through to the final, the body was fairly wrecked and I'd picked up an injury in the World Cup that I played through; by the time you get through to the end of the season those niggles catch up on you.
"This year has probably felt...it feels a little different from then, there have been more breaks, I haven't been injured, but it seems to have flown by this season."
Given their place in the play-offs is far from secure with two games to go, Ulster are outsiders for the Guinness Pro12 this season. It is now 10 years since they last claimed a trophy, then the Celtic League, and Best is one of a quartet of players remaining from that team, along with Tommy Bowe (above), Andrew Trimble and Roger Wilson.
"A lot of good players came and went and won nothing and there's four of us left. The other three are hanging on by a thread, I'm obviously fine," Best reflected with a smile.
"But it is frustrating when you look back at the teams we had, to have not won anything, I think it's because we didn't know how far we had to go.
"You talk about those 80-plus minutes, you do need to play and have that mentality where you're going for 85-90 minutes and that's where we need to be at on Saturday, to start this roll on the way in.
"We've got a few young players who have won things at international level, who know what it takes to win things and you have got to hope that they feed off those experiences and do better."