Sunday 15 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'Rory Best's leadership is worth cherishing for as long as possible'

17 March 2018; Ireland captain Rory Best leads his side out prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
17 March 2018; Ireland captain Rory Best leads his side out prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Rory Best is already on record as saying he will think long and hard about his future in rugby (presumably at Test level) after the November internationals and it’s hard to blame him.

In an ideal world, Best will lead Ireland into the ninth World Cup in less than a year’s time, with Joe Schmidt likewise still at the helm beyond that as we look towards France four years further down the track.

Oh, were it that simple. The Craigavon-born hooker is already the most-capped player in the position in Irish rugby history and the country’s third most-capped player behind Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll. It is an incredible achievement and testimony to the durability of one of our greatest servants.

Is he the best hooker to play for Ireland? No. Is he still the best in that role to hold down the position just now? Probably not. Given that he has recovered from a nasty hamstring tear – front-row forwards didn’t know what a hamstring was never mind how to over-extend it back in the day – should Schmidt pick him ahead of Niall Scannell, Seán Cronin, Rob Herring or James Tracy now? Yes, yes and yes again.

Sean Cronin of Ireland is tackled by Federico Ruzza of Italy. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

There is no denying the changes in the game since going open back in 1995. As an international force, we are in a far better place than ever we were in Corinthian times. Preparation is second to none and the IRFU bows to no other organisation in that regard. Every angle is covered with leaders in abundance on and off the field.

The key to any successful team at any level in Rugby Union, in addition to meticulous preparation, is a powerful leader on the field.

Unlike other team sports, especially given rugby’s complexities, the role of the captain remains paramount. Show me a successful team and I’ll guarantee you a special type of captain.

I remember before the Wales/Ireland game in Cardiff two years ago watching Best and Scannell, his understudy that day, practising lineout-throwing (to each other) or, as modern vernacular would have it, practising their ‘darts’ over five, ten and 15 metres before kick-off. Scannell was in a different league in both accuracy and consistency. Were he to have picked his hooker on throwing ability alone, Schmidt could have made the tactical switch there and then. But rugby doesn’t work like that.

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Again prior to professionalism the emphasis was on what a player couldn’t do rather than what he could. Ironically, before that again it was harder to get off  the Ireland team than on to it.

Rory Best is quite simply a brilliant all-round rugby-playing hooker but is also one blessed with innate powers of leadership. Yes, they have been tweaked and honed through experience over the years but when it comes to that ability to demand of others nothing that he wouldn’t demand of himself, then Best has been peerless.


Since becoming Schmidt’s commander-in-chief post-Paul O’Connell in 2012 (although he did lead Ireland to North America in 2009 when that trek coincided with the Lions touring South Africa), he was walked the walk.

Peter O’Mahony is the picture of concentration in training. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Peter O’Mahony (above) may be captain-in-waiting and would be my choice when that time comes but he still has much to learn from Best in how the current captain handles himself and others, particularly in the white heat of battle. There’s no red mist with Best – just ultra-controlled aggression, scavenging and hard-yard ball-carrying but at all times he’s cognisant of what’s going on around him.

I bow to the knowledge of former front-row colleagues when they highlight the added solidity he brings to the scrum while his line of communication with match officials is second to none. He is no shrinking violet when it comes to making his case but even in the heat of the moment it is loaded with respect.

All four provinces here have produced some amazing hookers, and I mean world-class exponents in the position, over the years. Take Karl Mullen, Keith Wood, Ciarán Fitzgerald and Ken Kennedy  as cases in point. The current Ireland captain is up there with the very best – pun absolutely intended. But time is not on his side and that is why at 36 and back after an eight-month lay-off at this level, he is sensible enough to appreciate this November journey into the unknown.

Realistically, it will be 60-minute rugby from here on in but even if it is just to have him at training, in the dressing room and there to lead the team on, his continued selection is a no-brainer, fitness allowing.

Scannell, Herring and Tracy are hookers in the Best mould with Cronin a Keith Wood type broken field runner (as well as possessing the other bits and pieces too). Best for an hour, with Cronin’s impact for the final 20, makes the right combo in the current mix. Not sure Joe will see it the same way – although he has today – but he is closest to the action.

But of one thing we are all agreed. In Johnny Sexton, we have the most influential playmaker in world rugby for 2018. I am not arguing a case for Sexton against Beauden Barrett in overall terms as the Kiwi out-half is something really special in my book; however, for the last 12 months one player has lorded the position, whether for province or country, and that is Sexton.

Nor am I one for banging the green drum too loudly. However, for a panel comprising eight of the world’s greatest, including our own Brian O’Driscoll, to come up with a shortlist of five for World Player of the Year and not to include Conor Murray simply beggars belief.

With due respect to Barrett, only one player came close to Sexton in 2018 and that was the Limerick man on his inside when wearing green.

O’Driscoll was scandalously overlooked for the supreme award in 2009 (ironically, in favour of fellow judge Richie McCaw). History must not repeat itself. Has to be Sexton by a mile.

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