Concentrating on his own game is Best way forward
Irish hooker may be older but his desire to win is still strong, writes Aisling Crowe
A decade later, 78 caps accumulated, a few kilos shed and less hair than when he first walked into an Irish dressing room to find a green jersey hanging from a peg with his number on it, Rory Best is laughing about a photograph that popped up on social media earlier in the week.
A 10 years younger version of Ireland’s anchor scoring a try found its way into his Twitter feed. The ravages of life as a professional rugby player are what prompts his chuckling.
The flip side of that humour reflects the new reality of Irish rugby. Best had been a mature presence in the side as a younger man, but now when he looks around him at training or retires to his room at Carton House, he sees men who were just boys when that try was frozen in time in a camera lens.
“Now, all of a sudden, there aren’t many people older,” he pauses. “It’s strange how the years just go by and people come and go and you think you’ll really miss them, and you do, but you get on with your job.”
“It doesn’t seem so long ago that every camp, no matter where we were, I was rooming with Denis (Leamy). And when you think back, he’s nearly gone four years. Things just pass really quickly and you adapt and go on,” Best says.
It’s a feeling familiar to so many, not just professional sportspeople. Weeks turn into months and suddenly years have passed and the threads of friendship once as essential as breathing can no longer be picked up.
The years have changed Best’s role within the squad. Where once he was the player trying to dislodge the incumbent from the number two shirt, now he is the man in possession and determined not to let it become Seán Cronin’s regular spring weekend attire.
The best way of ensuring that it remains in the Armagh man’s wardrobe is to concentrate on his own game, a truism he lost sight of in the early years of his career when his focus was on getting ahead of Jerry Flannery, to the detriment of his own game.
“For me, you can get too preoccupied with how other people are playing, so I’ve just got to look at what I can control, and that’s my form for Ulster.”
There is no room for sentiment when winning is your business and Joe Schmidt never lets emotion shake his focus. From the moment Best and the rest of the Irish contingent who were unaccustomed to the New Zealander’s approach met their coach he has never relented. Schmidt’s emphasis on mental preparation chimes with the Ulster hooker’s own.
“It’s hard to know if standards can go up anymore,” he says of the exacting nature of Schmidt’s belief system. “Even from day one, the first session he did, he just said, ‘Right, this is the play, and now we’re going out onto the field to do it’. It gets you talking about it because you know you can’t go out onto the field and get it wrong.
“From the first day I met him he just threw a play at me that I had never heard of in my life, and that’s a part of what he does. He gets you talking in mini units and then everything sorts of builds out from there. The standards are high,” he concludes.
The players respond to Schmidt’s demands because he expects the same of himself and delivers that.
Even still, he is constantly striving for perfection. Comfort zones do not exist for Ireland’s head coach and where he felt the players deviated from those standards against England in last year’s Six Nations, he let them know, although that game did not feel remotely comfortable to those on the pitch.
Best admits: “Looking back we probably just weren’t where we needed to be. He said, ‘Look, that’s a lesson, let it never happen again’. We only look back to correct mistakes. That’s a big part of us and all about being mentally ready.
“Joe expects us to come in on Sunday night and be as ready to go as we would be the night before the game or the morning of a game.”
Sport is an accelerated microcosm of the world outside the white lines. Property is a concern of many of his generation and the hooker is in the process of building a family home. Best is only 32 years old and most of his contemporaries have just reached Camp One on the arduous trek up the Everest of careers, but the Ulster hooker is in the death zone and summiting rugby’s mountain is within sight.
With that in mind, would he trade another Six Nations title for standing on the dais behind Jamie Heaslip lifting the Webb Ellis trophy aloft in Twickenham on Halloween? His answer an eloquent riposte to fanciful notions that medals are like the sweetshop pick-and-mix.
“When you get a bit older you keep getting greedier and you want to win everything. It’s no different. We’ll focus on the Six Nations first and whatever comes from that we’ll look ahead to the World Cup.”
Older, with more caps and less hair but with an insatiable desire to win, so much and yet so little has changed in the decade the affable Ulster farmer has been the man throwing straight arrows for Ireland.