Saturday 21 September 2019

O'Brien shouldn't have singled out Howley - Rory Best

Irish captain appreciates flanker’s ‘refreshing’ approach but doesn’t agree with decision to criticise Lions attack coach

Ulster captain Rory Best shares a joke with Munster counterpart Peter O’Mahony at the launch of the Champions Cup in Dublin Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster captain Rory Best shares a joke with Munster counterpart Peter O’Mahony at the launch of the Champions Cup in Dublin Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

If diplomacy is the art of stepping on a friend's toes without him even realising it, Rory Best is quite the nimble dancer.

"Look, Seanie is a very passionate character..."

Best has been invited to tip-toe amongst the eggshells deposited by his Lions colleague Sean O'Brien as the fall-out from the New Zealand tour rumbles on.

The re-appointed Ulster and (still) Ireland captain does so, managing to raise his eyebrows without raising his voice.

"If he thinks something, he'll get it out there," says the man who captained a Lions touring side twice. "It's refreshing.

"After the first Test, he felt like he was in the position he said he was. Tired and over-trained. It's hard for me to comment on that. I didn't play in that game. I wasn't playing so I don't know where I was in terms of fitness."

However, his Munster counterpart, Peter O'Mahony, did know precisely; indeed, he captained the first Test team before being dropped; but asked yesterday if any of O'Brien's broadsides echoed for him personally, he pointedly, twice, refused the invitation.

Best did have an issue with the manner in which the Carlow man singled out Gatland's recurrently beleaguered assistant, Rob Howley.

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"They're his feelings but I don't think he should have singled out one coach. He didn't single out anyone else one way or the other.

"From a forward's point of view, I have a massive amount of respect for Steve Borthwick. What he did, the way he coaches, the way he prepares.

"Sometimes we just look at the negatives. Sean expressed an opinion. I have no doubt, that if that's how he felt, that wasn't the first time he'd said it.

"He'll have said that to the coaches as well."

Which makes it disappointing for fans of O'Brien's lip-singing, hip-swinging honesty that the flanker was forced to set the record straight less than 24 hours after he had first set the record straight.

Perhaps Warren Gatland has 'WhatsApped' them all to keep shtum until the official survey monkey pops into their inboxes. O'Brien's regret that the All Blacks could have been whitewashed prompts something more approaching surprise rather than scorn from Best.

"I would never disrespect New Zealand and say it should have been 3-0 but you look at the players that we brought and, with maybe more preparation or whatever, there was an opportunity.

"I'm not jumping on the bandwagon, like some players that didn't even go on the tour, and say it should have been 3-0 but that was an unbelievable squad of players. When you look at what New Zealand have done since, to say it should be 3-0 is a massive statement."

Apart from the diplomatic fall-out, there is also renewed pressure on the Lions to trim their schedule; Best fervently believes that the midweek games must remain part of the touring fabric.

"Everyone has an opinion of how to make things better, where it went wrong, where it went well. They're all going to differ.

"For me, it was a really enjoyable tour. People talk about how difficult it is. How you can't play two games a week any more.

"For me, that's what's special about the Lions. Playing on a Saturday, then potentially again on a Tuesday, you never have to do that, especially in Ireland when we're so well looked after.

"But for six weeks, every four years, you get to do something very different. It's brilliant and I don't think that should change."

The irony is that Best is now knackered and hasn't been able to play twice since the summer, let alone twice in one week.

He does hope to return for the second round of Champions Cup fare, in good time for the November internationals.

Unlike his predecessors Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, he is adamant that double-jobbbing as captain for club and country will not drain him.

"I captained those midweek Lions sides and really enjoyed it. I enjoy captaining Ireland. I spoke with Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt.

"And we just sort of said, with the leadership group we have in both teams, it's something that can be done."

With Ulster, it is a case of unfinished business; as he sees it, if he'd made a better fist of it first time around, he wouldn't have to step back into the leadership breach now.

"A lot of the stuff over pre-season was geared towards identifying key senior players which is not the most straightforward thing with Ulster.

"There are really good players but maybe not ones who have come through underage captaining sides and who are now in their mid-20s.

"So we're trying to identify who we have now but also ones for the future. That was a large part of the work that we did. Now it's about leaning on those boys.

"The likes of Iain Henderson, somebody that has a load of talent but, to take the next step, he has to take more of a leadership role.

"We've seen him calling line-outs, something that people said would never happen, but now he's done it in a massive game against England and for the Lions.

"Now he has to take another step. That's part of a legacy that I want to leave that I probably felt I hadn't when I stepped down the last time."

Not that Best is stepping aside any time soon. Ulster's under-achievement still wounds him deeply and that fire still burns.

"If you start to talk about age too much, you start to feel you're old," says Best, who will have turned 37 when the 2019 World Cup begins.

"Look at Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer. I'm not saying I'll go to 40 but if I feel like I can compete and play to a high level that I can be proud of, I'll keep playing."

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