Wednesday 25 April 2018

'Joe was very clear ahead of the day off on Wednesday . . . get away from rugby then come back 100 per cent focused on Scotland'

Pain of last week's defeat still remains but Best and his Irish team-mates still have a shot a history

Rory Best is hoping last week's line-out malfunction against Wales will not be repeated today at Murrayfield
Rory Best is hoping last week's line-out malfunction against Wales will not be repeated today at Murrayfield
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

You can manage the message, but controlling what is going on in players' heads is harder to do. The words Grand and Slam were banned from the public exchanges in the build-up to last weekend's game in Cardiff, but Rory Best concedes that internally the squad were dreaming big.

That's what has made this week such a difficult one for a squad who knew history beckoned, but couldn't deliver their best on the big day.

A week later, their crown is on the line in Edinburgh - and back-to-back titles for the first time since 1949 are not to be sniffed at - but they have had to process their defeat and what it meant before focusing on Scotland.

"It's difficult when you set your standards high and you feel that you're capable of Grand Slamming, you put yourself in a position to do it and then not do it. . . but I think you have just got to rely on the fact that people being despondent and annoyed about it is a good thing," he says.

"We have to rectify the fact that we put in a poor performance last week.

Grieving

"But, the flip-side of that is that you've got to shake yourself down and prepare now for Scotland, I think we've been able to do that."

Calling it a grieving process is probably too much, but the challenge for Joe Schmidt this week has been to gently lift his squad from a place of despondence in order to perform this afternoon.

"Joe was very clear on his message ahead of the day off on Wednesday - take 24 hours and get away from rugby and come in Wednesday night for the meetings and bits and pieces fresh and focused 100pc on Scotland," Best explains.

"On the Saturday night after the game, we said: 'Look, we'll look back at Wales but we can't touch or affect that now'. We can only affect this weekend.

"It has taken a day or two of getting over the disappointment of wanting the Grand Slam and putting ourselves in that great position and not finishing it off, so it has been difficult.

"That day off on Wednesday really helped us, the wee bit of sunshine on Thursday too - if we'd trained in wet and miserable conditions like Wednesday the boys would probably have felt a bit more sorry for themselves but it really feels like spring now and a good opportunity."

That opportunity is another shot at history and, Best reveals, a target the squad set in the aftermath of last season's Championship victory in Paris.

"It's something we talked about after winning the one last year, that this team is capable of backing it up," he recalls. "In many ways it would be harder to back it up, because Wales and Scotland are very hard places to go. We've shown that Wales is a tough place to go and have to make sure that we're better to go to Scotland and win.

"With the added pressure of being champions and trying to retain it, everything that goes with that, it would be a massive achievement to back it up.

"It would give you a bit of momentum going into the World Cup, but we have to make sure we're better against Scotland than we were last week.

"That's ultimately what we always want to be, better than the last game. We failed on that front against Wales and we need to make sure that we're better against Scotland than against Wales."

Best says the coach has kept things on an even keel this week, not hammering the players too much for their performance at the Millennium Stadium while trying to coax one last performance out of them today.

One of the greatest disappointments from Cardiff was the fact that Wales managed to outperform Ireland in areas of traditional strength, something that must be difficult to take.

Best suggests that the enormity of the occasion and desire to put in a performance to mark Paul O'Connell's 100th cap and Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy's 50th may have played a part.

"We had a flat start, from a players' point of view we really wanted to produce a big performance for Paulie, Johnny and Cian when he came on," he reveals.

"That, as well as the fact that we were leading into a big two games for us, we knew Wales away was going to be tough but we just. . . a couple of things we really rely on, dominating the air, not giving away penalties, not giving away field position and being rock solid in our lineout just was a wee bit off.

"We were a wee bit off, while Wales were on the money. If you look at the contestable kicks, we knew that they were going to be good but they were really up. They turned 50-50s we normally turn to 60-40s, but they flipped them.

"The same with the lineout, it's something we put a lot of pride in and we knew Wales would be good there, but they were just a split-second faster than they had been 12 months previous when we were 100pc. They were a split-second quicker than England had been at the Aviva when we were close to 100pc, so they're the small margins.

"You give a team that need momentum a bit of momentum and it's hard to fight it back. Credit to the way we stuck at it to fight it back, the bodies coming off the bench did an incredible job to get us back into a position where we could have won the game."

The lineout is the area closest to his own heart and the fact that Wales did a job on Ireland's set-piece will have stung.

When Ireland needed to get back into the game early on, Best's first effort out of touch was underthrown and picked off by Sam Warburton. It set the tone for a difficult day for the lineout.

That one, he takes responsibility for although nobody expected the Wales captain to go up. The others he puts down to the homework Wales had done on the Irish set-piece and there is pride in how they fixed what was going wrong on the pitch.

The malfunctions hurt the Ulster captain, but he had to develop a thick skin a long time ago.

"When it doesn't go well, everyone says, 'He can't throw, he can't throw; he's back to that fella who can't throw in'," he smiles wryly. "You just have to say everyone's entitled to their opinion, but that's not the way we see it and not the way it was. It's a combination thing."

The ability to problem-solve and stay in the game until the final play against a Wales team right at the top of their game is the one true positive that Ireland can take into this week and the upcoming World Cup.

"We have some very big leaders and some very smart players. When you look back on the last 12 months, the last two Six Nations, we've lost two games and we've been really disappointed in the way we've played in both," Best says.

"We lost one away to England by three points, the other away to Wales by seven. So, to be really disappointed by the way we've played in both is a mark of how far we've come in terms of consistency and quality of performance.

"Everyone was bitterly disappointed after the Wales match, to get within four points and be one half-break or missed tackle away from putting pressure on them and the way our bench came on, there was going to be a lot of pressure on them if we in their half and their 22.

"We just couldn't get there, but we were capable of fighting our way back out of a hole and that, as good as the performance against England was, you find out more about a team, a squad and as people whenever they're 12-0 down at the Millennium Stadium against a team like Wales who have shown in the past against a team like England that they're capable of cutting loose."

The hope is that Warren Gatland's men don't do that in Rome today, setting Ireland a target to chase. Best has been here before, in Rome in 2007 and he won't be getting too fussed by what's going on elsewhere,

"It's better to know what you have to do, but it's about winning," he says. "If you look at anything other than putting in a performance good enough to win, you're kidding yourself."

 

Calculators ready

Three games, four potential winners and six-and-a-half hours of rugby; the final day of the Six Nations will be as much a challenge of the mind as the body.

The third-placed team get events under way with Wales facing Italy in Rome at 12.30, before second-placed Ireland's visit to Murrayfield at 2.30 and the day concludes at Twickenham where leaders England play a France side with an outside shot at claiming the title.

England have a points difference of +37 after four games, four ahead of Ireland on +33. Wales have a 25-point gap to make up on Stuart Lancaster's side with their points difference standing at +12, but at this stage of the season and without Sergio Parisse, Italy are vulnerable to a big score.

The Azzurri shipped 52 points at home to England at the same stage last year, while Warren Gatland's side are traditional strong finishers who put 51 points on Scotland on the final day last season - albeit the Scots were down to 14 men.

Scotland's recent Championship record at Murrayfield is poor, but Ireland rarely win big in Edinburgh. Their biggest victory came in 2003 when they beat the Scots 36-6.

England, meanwhile, have lost just once to France at home since 1997 - in 2005 - but the much-maligned French have a strong defensive record this season. They need Wales and Ireland to lose to have a chance of winning.

Predictions

Italy 10, Wales 39

Scotland 10, Ireland 31

England 23, France 13

Finishing Positions

1st: Ireland +54

2nd: England +47

3rd: Wales +41

Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport