Thursday 23 November 2017

Alan Quinlan: Old-school warrior finally getting credit he deserves after years of leading from the front

Ireland captain Rory Best is appluaded off the pitch by his teammates
Ireland captain Rory Best is appluaded off the pitch by his teammates
Ireland captain Rory Best has always been appreciated by his team-mates. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Alan Quinlan

"That was the thing about playing with the northern boys: we transcended politics. It didn't take too long for me to reconcile my Republican heritage with the diverse political and religious backgrounds of my team-mates. There was no border in the Irish dressing room."

Moss Keane speaking in No Borders, playing rugby for Ireland

Standing in the upper deck of the West Stand of the Aviva Stadium, I thought about those words on Saturday night. Moss Keane wasn't just speaking for himself but for everyone who has ever pulled on the Ireland shirt.

There most certainly is no border - geographic or socio-economic - within Irish rugby.

I was a Catholic from Limerick Junction but whenever I looked around the dressing-room, I didn't try and figure out in my head if someone was Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu.

Nor did I think, or care, if their father was a doctor or a farmer. All that mattered to me was whether they were willing to battle.

Simon Zebo is tackled by Australia’s Will Genia during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo is tackled by Australia’s Will Genia during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Sportsfile

So when the autumn of my international career coincided with the spring of Rory Best's - I was happy with what I saw. He was this tough b*****d from Ulster, a proper old-school warrior who put his head in where it hurt, who did the kind of work that the TV cameras mightn't pick up on, but team-mates, and opponents, always did.

He was talented but grounded, aggressive on the park, chatty off it. Denis Leamy, another Tipperary man, was his room-mate - even though Rory's brother Simon was also in the squad.

We all liked him from the start. A fun-loving farmer from Poyntzpass, he'd talk cattle with John Hayes, and talk until the cows came home with the rest of us.

That was 11 years and 100 caps ago. So when I saw him briefly on Saturday night, instinctively I got off my seat and made my way across to speak to him. "Well done," I said. "What you've achieved is incredible."

And make no mistake it is. To get one international cap takes talent. To get 99 more takes far more: a hunger, a humility, an ability to take the hits (emotional as well as physical) and to keep coming back for more.

Flannery .jpg
Jerry Flannery, Ireland, is tackled by Alasdair Dickinson, Scotland. Rugby World Cup Warm-up Game, Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jerry Flannery in action for Ireland

Remember there was a time when he wasn't first choice. Jerry Flannery's career coincided with his. And Jerry, remember, was a proper player. So the fact that Rory Best could reach the century-mark, and continuously deliver, even when the pressure to do so was higher than ever, is an achievement no-one should underestimate.

I should know. Getting 27 caps was a struggle. Injury can disrupt your career. And if you are inconsistent, you are off the team. If you are mentally weak, you're in trouble.

Let's be clear about one thing, then - Best's physical strengths are surpassed by an iron-clad belief, something we've seen from him this year in particular.

Think about the Six Nations. New to the captaincy, Ireland drew with the Welsh before being down and out in Paris and London, narrowly defeated by the French and English in games where they could quite easily have won.

Garry Ringrose stretches across the line to score Ireland’s second try despite the tackle of Dean Mumm. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose stretches across the line to score Ireland’s second try despite the tackle of Dean Mumm. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Questions were asked. Fingers were pointed. "Is the captain up to the job?" some people asked.

And he delivered the answer. The first man to lead Ireland to a win over the Springboks on South African soil, he was also the first to captain an Ireland side to victory over the All Blacks. And now, he's the first to oversee wins against the three Southern Hemisphere giants within the same calendar year.

Is he up to the job? Well, it isn't just the results that answer that question, it's the manner of them.

Joe Schmidt congratulates Rory Best after the win over South Africa
Rory Best and Joe Schmidt after South Africa win

Against South Africa, Ireland were down to 14 men. Against the All Blacks and then Australia on Saturday, they'd lost momentum. Yet no matter what the odds, he believes the team can win. He can inspire by being prepared to get stuck into the fight, but also by having this innate sense of composure.

"There is a calmness throughout the team," he said on Saturday. "Younger players - Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery - may be only 21 or so, but they don't do panic."

Nor does this Ireland team. In the second half on Saturday, they didn't just have their backs to the wall, they had their backs in the treatment room: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne - all gone by half-time. A week earlier, they'd lost CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton before the break. Could they cope? Well, they did, showing fight as much as skill.

And what this tells us is that there's reason to be excited about the months and years ahead. A year ago we couldn't recover without Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien, Sexton, Payne and Peter O'Mahony for the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.

None of those five - (for a variety of reasons) - started the second half of Saturday's game, either. Instead we had a scrum-half on the wing and an out-half at full-back. Yet we won.

"One of my proudest days," Joe Schmidt said afterwards. And it should be. First up, because of the quality they showed in the first half, when they absolutely destroyed the Australians at the breakdown, exposing their sloppiness in those opening 40 minutes, when their indiscipline, coupled with the intensity of Ireland's play, disabled them from slowing the Irish ball.

And so Ireland dominated the first half. Seventeen unanswered points were scored; 75 tackles were made by the Australians, 34 by the Irish, highlighting how one-sided the possession stakes were at that stage.

CJ Stander, right, celebrates with Paddy Jackson. Photo: Getty
Paddy Jackson and CJ Stander

And yet it wasn't a perfect performance. We had a fair few line-breaks and the power of Stander, Iain Henderson, Josh Van der Flier and Tadhg Furlong, combined with a collective improvement in the team's footwork, certainly hurt the Australians. But there were also too many times when we lacked a finishing touch.

And when Australia scored their fine try just before half-time, I wondered if that would come back to haunt us. Twenty minutes later, by which stage 17-0 had turned into 20-24, those fears had been realised.

Sometimes teams simply need an old-fashioned rollicking. And Michael Cheika delivered it. Australian softness in that opening half was followed by evidence of their steeliness after the break.

The breakdown, which always sets the tone for the game, was no longer being dominated by Ireland. The Wallabies started winning the physical collisions, and their backs started running these superb lines. Two second-half tries were scored. Let's be honest, they could have had three more.

Yet there are days when you have to credit teams for the ability to dig out a result. And by the full-time whistle, with five of the backs who started against New Zealand in Chicago missing because of injury, Ireland prevailed. The bench - O'Mahony, Cian Healy and Ultan Dillane - made a huge impact.

And all of a sudden we could get a glimpse of the future. If a big player is missing, then Schmidt now has serious options as cover.

No Jack McGrath? That's fine, he has Healy. No Best? Sean Cronin could do a job. Likewise, Finlay Bealham could cover for Furlong, Donnacha Ryan or Dillane for Henderson or Devin Toner.

Try picking a back-row between Heaslip, Van der Flier, Stander, O'Brien and O'Mahony. Sexton missing? Look at how Paddy Jackson played on Saturday. No Payne or Henshaw? No problem. You now have Garry Ringrose.

In the back three, Kearney, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls are my preferred starters but Trimble, Tiernan O'Halloran or this guy called Tommy Bowe, in case you have forgotten him, are around.

"Our squad is in good stead," Schmidt said afterwards.

He isn't wrong.

My team to play Scotland in the Six Nations opener:

R Kearney: Earls, Payne, Henshaw, Zebo; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, Furlong; Toner, Ryan; Stander, O'Brien, Heaslip

My alternative selection if everyone is injured:

O'Halloran; Trimble, Ringrose, Marshall, Bowe; Jackson, Marmion; Healy, Cronin, Bealham; Henderson, Dillane; O'Donnell, Van der Flier, O'Mahony

Irish Independent

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