Tom Cary: 'Rory Best was lucky he didn't have his phone with him in the first half, but he silenced doubters'
“The year is 3018, the state of society completely alien to what we know now. One thing remains constant in the universe. Rory Best is still starting for Ireland.”
It was lucky Rory Best did not have his phone with him during the first half of Saturday night’s historic victory at the Aviva Stadium. Had Ireland’s veteran captain and hooker been on social media, the Ulsterman might have been tempted to reach for the cyanide. Which would have been a pity considering what eventually unfolded.
As one of the most incredible nights in the history of rugby in this nation played out, it is fair to say Irish rugby fans were not feeling entirely well disposed towards their on-field leader. The above tweet, from a punter calling himself @SeanThornton69, was one of very few which could be safely repeated in a family newspaper.
One ball spilled by Best in contact in the frantic opening exchanges, allowing New Zealand to break upfield and win a penalty from which Beauden Barrett put the All Blacks temporarily level at 3-3, prompted a deluge of angry emojis and swearwords. Another pass, which managed to evade all of his team-mates, dropping harmlessly to the turf, led to furious calls for Best to hang up his boots pronto.
There was no little irony in the fact that even as Ireland rose magnificently to the summit of world rugby - and they would be No 1 in the world today had England held on at Twickenham last week - we had the shrillest calls yet for the retirement of the man who has led them there.
Ironic, but perhaps not altogether surprising. In many respects the national debate over Best’s selection - which has been going on for a while now - mirrors the one we have over here with Dylan Hartley.
Jamie George is the heir apparent for England, the younger man, a better handler of the ball, more comfortable in the loose. Yet Eddie Jones remains faithful to his onfield lieutenant.
For Jamie George read Munster’s 26-year-old Niall Scannell. Or even Sean Cronin. who at 32 is not a whole lot younger but is a whole lot faster. Best looked as if he was wading through treacle for much of Ireland’s victory over Argentina last weekend.
“Age catches up with everyone - there is nothing you can do about it - and it’s the zip in the legs which goes first,” noted Brian O’Driscoll in the build-up to this game. “I feel for Rory as I’m sure these are thoughts which are going through his head. And he’s a mentally tough guy. But there’s only so much mental toughness you can have…”
How satisfying it must have been for Best, then, that even as the All Blacks threw on Dane Coles, arguably the world’s greatest hooker, for Codie Taylor, the youngster who has filled Coles’ shoes so ably while he has been out injured, he should stay on the pitch and contribute to Ireland’s heroic performance.
All week New Zealand had prodded and probed at the Best question, stirring the pot, suggesting not very subtly that the Aviva Stadium would be no country for old men.
“Jeez, I would be lucky to be tying my laces at 36,” quipped Taylor. “It's pretty unreal to see him still playing at the highest level in world rugby.”
Best did a bit more than just tie his shoelaces on Saturday night. He made mistakes, yes, but he was always willing, piling into ruck after ruck and eventually departing after 64 minutes to a standing ovation from the Aviva Stadium crowd. Devin Toner’s return to the team made life easier for him, of course. Ireland were nine for nine in lineout completions while they were on the pitch together.
But the questions will not go away. For how much longer can Joe Schmidt persevere with him? Best will be 37 by the time Japan comes around.
“Time waits for no man,” concluded O’Driscoll. “There are no doubts as to Rory’s qualities as a leader. But I think from his perspective he could really have done with the World Cup being the September just gone...”
It is difficult to argue with that assessment. Best may not make the World Cup, let alone 3018. But if the farmer from Ulster is sent to the knacker’s yard before Japan comes round, he can always look back with pride when he became the first captain to lead Ireland to victories over New Zealand both home and abroad. There’s no shame in that.