Thursday 13 December 2018

David Kelly: New deal offers no guarantees that Rory Best will lead in Japan

Ulster hooker determined to play big role but Schmidt's ruthlessness will be key factor on issue of captaincy

Joe Schmidt and
Rory Best are in
line to lead Ireland
towards the World
Cup next year Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Rory Best are in line to lead Ireland towards the World Cup next year Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Ireland wallowed in the top-table acclaim of their third Grand Slam last Saturday evening, one of our northern friends decided that it was the appropriate time to keep the good-news agenda flowing.

"How much would you like to see your Grand Slam-winning captain stay on and possibly skipper Ireland at the next World Cup?"

Joe Schmidt's answer could have been unequivocal but, just as he remained cautious about his champion team's development in the months and years to come before Japan 2019 - nothing is linear, he has constantly warned - his reply was necessarily couched in ambiguity.

"He's getting faster and faster on that zimmer frame," Schmidt smiled, before elaborating upon a contract that, presumably, had already been signed, sealed and delivered.

"That's something that could come to fruition, sooner rather than later. It's like everything with Rory: it's hard to get him to make a decision. We'll see how we go with that."

It seemed slightly jarring at the time; all the while, Best laughed nervously, fidgeting in his seat before reaching around to scratch his back.

At least yesterday's news scratched the itch; Best has been contracted until the end of the tournament in Japan - or at least, Ireland's participation in same, which many now hope will prove to be a longer stint than at any in history.

Rob Kearney, too, deemed by so many armchair coaches as the youngest has-been in Irish international rugby, has been rewarded with a contract extension of the same duration.

Wrong

That both men are on the wrong side of 30 - albeit Kearney is a youthful 31 - their length of service and recent long lay-offs through injury have allowed the IRFU to lean towards predictable financial conservatism.

Having poured north of €4m into another failed Rugby World Cup campaign - the 2023 hosting - HQ aren't as flush as many might suspect.

By far the most important piece of business concluded by the IRFU yesterday was the security provided to Iain Henderson who may have been a flight risk, not necessarily because he didn't want to play for Ireland but because overseas vultures may have been alerted to Ulster Rugby's precipitous decline.

The Lions lock, who has achieved a level of consistent performance in green that was not always evident even a year ago, had alluded to the potential offers from elsewhere - don't they all? - so tying the last unsecured playing asset was always a priority for IRFU performance director David Nucifora and Schmidt.

In truth, Best's deal would have been done well before now; he confirmed in an exclusive interview with this newspaper last January that he was hoping to get the issue sorted before the Six Nations campaign had ended.

Sadly, the horrific personal tragedy that engulfed the Nucifora family at the turn of the year understandably stalled much of the business he normally conducts and, given Best was never deemed a flight risk, there was little concern at the delay.

If the contract was never an issue for the hooker this season, neither was the captaincy; before the November internationals, Best confirmed that Schmidt had privately told him that the situation would remain unchanged for the season before being re-assessed.

That assessment depended on a number of factors - "where we were, how we felt and what was going on".

With a Grand Slam in the bank for a side who are developing a terrifying level of depth in many positions, it is fair to say that Ireland are in a good place, feeling happy with what is going on.

Hence, it would seem unlikely that Schmidt's predictably intense post-tournament review, ahead of the precise planning for a three-match tour to Australia, will countenance a shift in his opinion.

Or might it?

In that interview with this newspaper in January, Best spoke determinedly of his ambition to play at the next World Cup.

"I feel I can keep playing. I don't think I'm playing any worse than I did when I was 30. The body is holding up reasonably well. You have to be aware of how you look after yourself to maximise that.

"If you ask me the question again in 12 months, I'd like to think I would say yes then as well. Because I don't see any signs that it would be a no.

"I don't feel my age is affecting my role in the Irish team and I don't think my age is affecting my performance."

He will be 37 by the time Japan rolls around but, if anything, the lightly-raced thoroughbred improved with every outing in this campaign, before delivering his peak performance in Twickenham.

And his place remains blissfully unthreatened; Sean Cronin has never started a Six Nations game (and was dropped in November), Niall Scannell's injuries remain disruptive while neither James Tracy nor project player Tom McCartney have yet to convince Schmidt of their readiness.

That is good news for the player; but not for the coach or the squad.

Schmidt needs to develop depth in all positions. Best will tour Australia as Ireland will want to achieve the southern hemisphere series win that was denied them two summers ago in South Africa to copper-fasten their status as the side best equipped to topple the All Blacks in Japan.

However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Schmidt will contemplate a decisive shift in the captaincy role before Ireland welcome the All Blacks in November, with Peter O'Mahony one of the prime candidates to succeed him, along with Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

Ulster's statement yesterday included copious references to the captaincy from the province; perhaps pointedly, the official IRFU line from Nucifora did not; perhaps this is mere coincidence.

Schmidt's ruthlessness - ask Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan - is mandatory as he builds for the World Cup.

If he feels changing his captain is necessary along the way, don't be surprised if he does so.

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