Sport International Rugby

Friday 19 January 2018

Alan Quinlan: Rory's a tough nut and right choice to lead his country

New Ireland captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile
New Ireland captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Remember Georgia? The 2007 World Cup? Some of us can never forget it, the lucky escape from a harrowing defeat, the dark mood in the dressing room afterwards, the sense of panic. And there is something else that sticks in my mind, long forgotten by almost everyone else.

At this stage I was still only getting to know Rory Best. Simon, his brother, was someone I was better acquainted with, having toured with him in Japan in 2005. Rory? When I first became aware of him, I certainly didn't think, 'Future Ireland captain here, guys'.

In fact, I didn't even think he'd have much of an international career. That all changed in Bordeaux, though, when he was withdrawn 27 minutes before the end with a dislocated thumb. "That's six weeks out, isn't it?" I said. "That's your World Cup over?"

"I'll be grand," he replied.

Grand? How can you be grand when you dislocate your thumb? It happened to me a month later. I was out for two months, forced to have an operation.

And Rory? He missed one match, putting some fancy strapping on his hand and putting himself through the pain barrier to get back in time for the Argentina game, 19 days later.

He didn't make a song and dance about what he was doing. He's not a martyr. But he is tough. A hard bastard. A man who is willing to put his body on the line, to go in where it hurts. And let's be clear, he has been hurt on the rugby pitch.

I played with and against him and was there to see him stick his head in where the boots fly. I've heard the noise when boot has connected with his head. And I've seen him get up, dust himself down, and get on with it.

I watched, with a degree of awe, when he played for a few minutes against the All Blacks in 2013 with a broken arm, remembering how - when injured - he cleaned out a ruck with his good hand. At that moment in time he reminded me of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll.

Is he the right choice to lead Ireland? Absolutely, he is. While there were viable alternatives, Rory was the Best candidate and not just because he leads from the front and not just because he is ready to battle in the trenches.

His personality suits this job. O'Connell is a hard act to follow and you don't just need a level of self-confidence but also a degree of self-awareness. You cannot be aloof. You cannot swan around the team hotel when you are captain. You have to be able to mix.

Rory does. A hard man on the pitch, he is an easy-going guy off it. From the first time he came into the squad, a little over a decade ago, he didn't take the easy option and room with his brother or an Ulster colleague. He knew Denis Leamy from way back. They roomed together.

When it was lunch or dinner time, he was comfortable enough in his own skin to just arrive down and take up a seat next to whoever was there. It was never a case of him sticking to who he knew. He was always willing to mix, always up for a laugh, always a good character to have around the place, always popular.

And it can't have been easy for him as a young man. There can be cultural differences between Ulster players and those from south of the border. There is obviously the Protestant/Catholic thing which could have been an issue in Irish squads, but never was.


And it never was because men like Rory Best didn't care about what or who you were. All he concerned himself with was making himself as good as he could be. Lads respected him because we saw him as a tough nut, the ultimate professional, the selfless team player who was superb at the breakdown, a tough scrummager, a really good player.

And then we got to know the person and we respected him even more.

Could Joe Schmidt have made an alternative decision? Absolutely. Jamie Heaslip was a credible candidate and it was a smart call on Schmidt's behalf to offer him the vice-captaincy, not just because Heaslip is a good communicator on the field and not just because he has a calm temperament. Jamie lasts 80 minutes whereas Rory - quite often - is substituted with 10 or 15 minutes to go. With Heaslip there, we have a ready-made stand-in should Best need to be replaced.

Similarly, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton will all be integral members of the leadership group. Between them, the kind of messed-up decision-making that Robshaw made for England against Wales in the World Cup, will be avoided. This call - to have Best leading the team out - is one of Schmidt's smartest ones since he took charge. Players, from all four provinces, will both respect and follow him.

Will they respect Joe's decision not to select Garry Ringrose? Well, they should. Save him for the future.

Irish Independent

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