Comment: November will tell us whether Rory Best is the man to lead Ireland - or if he should be put out to pasture
RORY Best long ago passed the milepost where so many rivals felt compelled to lay down their arms.
In his 37th year, Ireland’s captain understands that time is moving against him, that, in the brutal, unforgiving theatre that is his factory floor, he is operating on borrowed hours.
If he has been a titan of longevity and exceptional command, still there are real questions about whether the Ulsterman can deliver a World Cup swordstroke to Father Time.
And so, we have the irony of a Grand Slam-winning captain, the owner of the deeds to 111 international caps, with, perhaps, more to prove than any other Irish player as the November international microscope is wheeled out of the laboratory.
Is it outrageous to imagine Best might be fighting for his international life when he fastens his trademark scrum cap for the Dublin date with New Zealand on November 17th?
Joe Schmidt has illustrated a supernatural capacity to micromanage every detail, but even he cannot inject the vitality of youth into a player’s bloodstream.
And so comes the difficult question of whether Schmidt, 11 months out from the tournament that will define his reign, ought to put his faithful old Clydesdale out to pasture?
If he leads the team against Italy in Chicago next week, Best will have the opportunity to refute such suggestions.
Some might condemn such Brutus-like wielding of daggers behind Caesar’s back as treacherous, but there are legitimate doubts, obligatory analysis to examine.
Those who will condemn any inquiry as ageist argue it is absurd to question whether Best can go on ignore cutting-edge research and the lessons of sporting history.
It wasn’t Giovanni Trapattoni’s only mistake, but Euro 2012 highlighted the Italian’s folly in insisting on making Shay Given, at 36, diminished by injury and the passing years, his first choice.
Even if a recent study of Super Rugby players found the average age of a hooker, Best’s position, to be older than most other positions, it was still just a shade over 28.
As the old Banbridge warrior wheezed through Ulster’s horrific mauling by a young, dynamic Racing 92 last week, we were reminded that Best will be almost a decade beyond that median line by next autumn’s Japanese fiesta.
How catastrophic would it be to find that on the meanest street in sport, Ireland’s captain was as exposed as an ageing prizefighter with barely a vestige of his old menace?
Of course, others have held the advancing years at bay with some style.
Ryan Giggs was Footballer of the Year at 35 and a Premier League winner at 39.
Stephen Cluxton, 11 months Best’s senior, remains Dublin’s beating heart, a player so pivotal to Jim Gavin’s team of the ages that the city fathers might legitimately mark his retirement by declaring a month of mourning.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams offer the most eloquent rebuke to those who insist all sporting possibilities are bound by the numbers on a birth certificate.
Peter Stringer continued what he called his “uncompromising obsession” past his 40th birthday; Donncha O’Callaghan enjoyed a career which felt like the tending of a Tir na nÓg allotment.
Yet, neither Stringer nor O’Callaghan were being asked to lead the nation into a World Cup where Ireland will be among the tiny number of authentic contenders.
Cluxton, like another timeless wonder, Gianluigi Buffon, is a goalkeeper who, if his reflexes miraculously defy the ticking clock, is spared the exhausting toil in the trenches, the endless debilitating attrition of a rugby front-row.
Giggs, while he supped from the fountain of eternal youth, never knew the car-crash level impacts of the tackle that come as a weekly hazard for a 21st century oval ball pro.
The draining requirement on every Irish player in Japan will be to play to the very limit of their ability over a sustained, high-intensity period while retaining a serrated mental and physical sharpness.
And so the queries about whether Best can continue for another year to impose his talents at the very highest rung of competition.
Or might it be more profitable to invest more big-game minutes in Leinster’s uniquely dynamic Sean Cronin or reward the upward graph of progressive Munster hooker, Niall Scannell?
Which is why the next month – with the All Blacks in Dublin fine-tuning their most devastating routines – will be brutally informative.
If Best shone on the historic March afternoon at Twickenham when the Grand Slam was secured, it is also true that he was one of the least effective performers in earlier rounds.
And that Six Nations campaign was fully 18 months before a World Cup when the intensity – at least in the knockout stages with quarter-final date with the All Blacks or resurgent South Africa looming – goes up another notch.
That so much of the Best’s game – the energy he brings to rucking, the capacity to move from phase to phase – is based on sheer physical effort sets off further alarm bells.
Old pros talk of how, with each passing week, each rebelling joint, it gets so much harder to light the fires of industry.
Even if he can make a heroic last stand against retirement, it seems to be inviting disturbance to additionally burden Best with what are hugely draining captaincy duties.
If the calls for Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony leading the team to Japan accelerate over the next month, it will be a reminder that every player has a limited shelf life.
And that time might be an ageing captain’s most ferocious opponent.