Sunday 24 March 2019

Captain shines as Ireland rediscover their Best qualities

Rory Best is swamped by Ireland team-mates Conor Murray and James Ryan after scoring Ireland’s first try against France. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory Best is swamped by Ireland team-mates Conor Murray and James Ryan after scoring Ireland’s first try against France. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

There was a moment yesterday when you couldn't see the Poolbeg Chimneys, such were the dark and foreboding clouds that lingered menacingly around Dublin 4 before kick-off.

A harbinger of gloom, one might have warily sensed, given the almost over-wrought, nervous anticipation that seems to have attended every tentative step this Irish team has taken this season.

And then, almost imperceptibly, the sun burst through and revealed the stunning view of the bay in splendid colour.

Ireland, too, so often concealing the best of what they are this term, would also emerge from their own feeling of shadowy uncertainty to find a more certain sense of themselves.

Almost as if the tremendous burst of anger from the heavens was being matched by a great release of pressure from those wearing a green jersey.

Jonathan Sexton, a study in frustrated self-flagellation one week, now high-fiving colleagues, dancing over the try-line and offering an appreciative thumbs-up to his replacement without the need to complete even an hour's work at the coal-face.

Keith Earls of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's fourth try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keith Earls of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's fourth try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"Let's go lads," bellowed CJ Stander, if not once, then 20 times; the muted forward pack suddenly delivering with the familiar murderous, meticulous intensity that saw off all in 2018.

A comforting revelation. "We showed so much today about who we really are," Jack Conan tells us simply.

The feeling was confirmed in the manner in which Ireland secured their bonus-point try in the 56th minute.

For Keith Earls was, a bit like his Ireland team for much of this campaign, hiding in plain sight, too; lurking at the front of a line-out as one of those famed Joe Schmidt "power plays" was being cooked up to bamboozle yet another flummoxed defence.

He had tried the gambit in the first-half but the effort was postponed; now he would get his chance, Stander's pull-back pass spread-eagling the French defence and allowing the Limerick man a gloriously liberating run for freedom.

Hunger

The hunted had become hunters once more. Hunger erupted with almost primeval desire, positive actions from the few reinforced with positive reactions from all.

Such a huge release of pressure, re-affirming a group whose belief had been slowly evaporating for a time, but which now had abruptly exploded into expression.

The tone is immediately set; it was perhaps apt that the first try-scorer of the day should have reminded us of a key personality in terms of re-setting the temper of the team, re-calibrating their character to reveal so much of what had, puzzlingly, become concealed from view.

Rory Best was playing his 116th game - his 30th as captain - but perhaps only the unfurling chapters of this year's rugby tale can tell us how significant his role has been in re-wiring the mood of his colleagues.

"It's been a tough few weeks," Conor Murray reminded us afterwards, as if anyone needed to be reminded.

As the squad withdrew to Belfast ten days ago on a voyage of self-discovery, predominantly in a fleet of black cabs, the under-stated yet commanding sense of authority of the captain rallied his men to restore once more the best of what they can be, and not to anticipate the worst.

"It was good to just re-connect with each other," says CJ Stander. "We did a few nice things, the black cab tours were nice. We listened to other people's problems. It was good to get together and enjoy our company, as a team."

Best may never be lauded like the great Irish captains, even of recent times, like O'Connell or O'Driscoll.

But the thunderous ovation afforded his replacement, louder even than that accompanying the departures of superstars Sexton and Murray, reflected the respect of an appreciative audience. Best helped open a window to this team's soul once more; his coach reminded us how precious the opportunity is.

"We started the championship on a really flat note. One of the great reminders for us is that you get nothing back in a Test match.

"You get one window and you can't just open it a bit to let the breeze in. You've got to open it right up and get through it. That's what we showed."

Best spoke of the process.

"The mini-cab in Belfast helped us a bit. It was nice to just get away. We went out for dinner. Sometimes when you're such a settled squad, you forget that you do have to spend that time together.

"We are a really tight-knit bunch and we had been as frustrated as anyone with some of the stuff in the first three games. What we spoke about was taking individual responsibility.

There had been a lot of criticisms of some players. But we looked at the way we've not been taking pressure off them. Stuff we really needed to do."

And to do so by addressing the problems, rather than being inhibited by them.

"We just wanted to attack. We're best whenever we attack situations. We had definitely played within ourselves.

"So it was nice to see us take a big step towards what we expect from each other."

His intervention - amidst a fine individual performance - marks his final bow in a Dublin Six Nations occasion.

"It's strange to think this is the last time you'll hop on a team bus to go to a Six Nations match. But to get that performance, it's exactly how you would plan your last game.

"As I said before, it was mainly Joe. He got very emotional and told me I wasn't allowed to keep going after he left..."

Schmidt chuckles beside him. On to Cardiff, restored and revitalised, a united team reminding itself that what they had constructed was incapable of falling asunder.

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