Friday 20 September 2019

'I am actually better than I was 12 months ago' - Rory Best

Best: Final match in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Best: Final match in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Rory Best has been down this road many times before.

Written off and doubted, none of it is new, but this time is different. Now he faces the biggest challenge of his glittering career before he calls it a day following the World Cup.

Father Time catches up with everyone, especially a 37-year-old hooker who has plenty of miles on the clock, but Best isn't finished just yet.

Joe Schmidt's man-management was such that he gave his captain a chance to rid himself of the Twickenham nightmare by offering him a run off the bench last weekend.

For the 28 minutes he was on the pitch, Best made 12 tackles, which was more than any Welsh player managed in the entire 80 minutes and the second highest of any of his team-mates.

The lineout remains a concern, even more so without the towering presence of Devin Toner, but that kind of stat is why Schmidt has stood by his man.

Best's throwing will come under the microscope again this afternoon as Alun-Wyn Jones and Co are bound to put him under huge pressure.

For many, an element of doubt still hangs over Best, but an assured performance will go a long way to easing those concerns before the squad depart for Japan on Wednesday.

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"When you turn 30 and certainly get towards 32 or 33 those questions are being asked," Best acknowledges.

"I am in the lucky/unlucky position that it has now been three or four years of those questions being asked.

"Sometimes you have to go back and ask, 'where did I finish with my fitness?' 'Where did I finish in the conditioning games?' and mark all the involvements and you can see that, if anything, I am actually better than I was 12 months ago.

"You have to find that confidence. The beauty of it is that my game has never revolved around speed but speed of thought. Did I do enough to make sure that mentally I can be a yard quicker than somebody who's quicker than me?

"Maybe in the first game it was the heat and everything but you have to trust that you have the ability to do it and physically I think I do. Mentally, there is no point having all this experience if you just throw it out."

As much as he has tried to block out the external noise, naturally Best has been aware of the level of criticism that has been aimed at him.

Perhaps it would be an even bigger issue if any of the other Ireland hookers were piling the pressure on him, but the reality is, most of them have had their struggles at lineout time too.

"I think when you talk about the bubble, some (criticism) seeps through," Best admits.

"When you're in a team meeting, everyone is aware that we haven't been near the standard we want.

"You feel that you've let yourself down, let the other people in the room down. Everyone gets cranky.

"It's not just that you're trying to block out what's written, that wouldn't change how you feel inside as a group. Some of the special times have been coming back from adversity, from people doubting you.

"Everyone knows a really talented player who didn't make it but maybe that's because they couldn't handle that.

"I think the bad games, you have to look back with pride over how you dealt with them, the lessons you learned.

"I remember a Scotland game at Croke Park, and they were all over us and we couldn't win it.

"It was a combination of everything but being a hooker you take a lot of the flak for it. I put that on myself too.

"I didn't have the confidence because, when things went badly, I hadn't practised enough that I could go back and trust the throws I'd done. That was a big lesson to me and I really upped the amount of practice I do.

"Through the adversity, you get there. If I hadn't had that bad day, I'd keep doing what I was doing and thinking that everything would be OK."

Toner's absence will be felt by Best more than any other Irish player and from that end, the Ulster hooker will have to take on even greater responsibility behind the scenes.

James Ryan will call the lineout today and given that it's a role the 23-year-old has only performed fleetingly in his career thus far, Best knows his darts have to be on the money.

"I think when I look at everything, people just focus in on the hooker," he insists.

"I understand that and it's only natural but chatting to Joe, he was happy with a few aspects of my play around the pitch and no matter how established you think you are, or other people think you are, you still get unsure.

"Even having that chat to Joe last week, he said, 'don't let that one area of your game affect the rest of your game.' He felt I'd done a couple of clean-outs, a couple of good carries.

"And it gives you a little bit of confidence. I know deep down that I didn't throw well. We talked about other aspects of the lineout but I know that I didn't throw well anyway.

"You have to get a bit of confidence from somewhere and build on that."

Fourteen years after making his international debut against the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road, and 119 caps later, Best has come full circle.

He will lead his country out on home soil for the final time today, but he will be doing everything within his power to ensure that the occasion is not about him or Schmidt.

"I'm very proud of a lot of the achievements over the years in that green jersey," he adds.

"Last year, I probably struggled, because I'm reasonably emotionally level and then to go at the end, the last ever Six Nations game at the Aviva, then you're trying to get from here, the drop-off, and you're trying to get back up again for Wales in Cardiff.

"The same happened at Ulster, the last game at Kingspan and then you're trying to play a semi-final. I just didn't really enjoy it.

"I actually said to my wife afterwards, 'I can't cope with this, this is not something I like doing.'

"That's why probably subconsciously I haven't allowed myself give it much thought, because this is about performing and a bigger picture."

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