Monday 18 December 2017

Rory Best - 'We let the foot off the throat a little'

Rory Best can't wait to rectify a grating loss to England, as he tells Brendan Fanning

Ireland's Rory Best speaking to the media during a press conference
Ireland's Rory Best speaking to the media during a press conference
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

An Ulsterian whom we spoke to last week described the good folk of Banbridge as being "modest; hardworking; driven". He mentioned this by way of explaining why Rory Best is the way he is. We don't know a lot about the water quality in that part of Co Down, but certainly whatever the hooker has been drinking has hit the spot. Best is all of those things and more.

Last week he looked comfortable on home soil, one of those rare enough occasions when the Ireland bandwagon rolls north. And up there Best enjoys virtual statesman status. Ireland had just wrapped up their training camp, and unlike the previous week when he had a voortrek from Clonmel to Banbridge, this time it was just a half-hour spin down the motorway to the homestead. No wonder he looked so comfortable.

There were a few irritants though: one he could do nothing about; another that's coming up on Saturday, an itch to still be scratched; and a third that's a bit further back but still close enough for him to break out in a rash.

First the England game. It grates because of lots of little things that went wrong, but also, surprisingly, for a biggish one that wasn't in order. We take it for granted that Ireland will be wired going into this fixture, home or away, but as it turned out England's mental state was at a better pitch.

"I think that was the first game in the last four that we weren't right where we needed to be in terms of just bringing out a big emotional performance," Best says.

And England were?

"And England were. Coming back to Twickenham, the first home game of the Six Nations, and I think probably from an Irish point of view that was one of the most disappointing things: to be out-emotioned or out-passioned by the English team, especially in that first 10 minutes of the second half when we did come out well. We looked really on top of the ground and we were firing. When we got to 10-3 – if we could have got another score there I think they looked rattled. They're a youngish team, they looked rattled and we probably let the foot off the throat a little bit which is disappointing."

Statistically, it was a mixed day for the hooker. His missed tackle count was pretty high, at six, and that has been following him around since the weekend. On the plus side the lineout – the criterion people in his position worry about most – was a thing of beauty. Ireland were flawless out of touch, and at the scrum.

This brings us to the third issue: the pulse quickener. Last summer in Australia should have been on Rory Best's show reel. Having been overlooked in 2009 for South Africa, even when Jerry Flannery pulled out, was hard to take. A repeat four years later was something he could scarcely contemplate. And of course it happened.

"I just got over it and then I was back in (when Dylan Hartley was ditched) and really it was an emotional roller coaster," he says. "I suppose in the end, in hindsight, it proved to be probably more than I could take mentally. I just really, really struggled. I went out there and didn't feel like myself. I felt like I had no real confidence and was just trying to get through things as opposed to how I feel with Ulster and Ireland. I don't just try to get through things, I try to be the best of everyone and try to influence people around me and be a bit of a leader whereas out there it was almost like all my confidence had gone again. It was a struggle."

Best's career hasn't been a leisurely spin on a sunny day with the top down. Not long after he had been part of Ireland's Grand Slam in 2009, he was packing his jammies for a neck operation. Bulging discs are about as bad as they sound, and in Best's case it cost him a year on the field. He has hurdled the usual run of obstacles in the front row of a collision sport, and along the way a remarkable strength of character has emerged.

On October 2, 2011, Ireland's World Cup reached its second peak in a month with the demolition of Italy in Dunedin. The downside was the departure of Best in the second half with a grade two separation of his AC joint. We had him written off by the time he reached the touchline. So had his team-mates, one of whom observed that the hooker's shoulder was "hanging, useless, after the game."

He was throwing to lineouts four days later. And two days after that he started against Wales. Either Best has wolverine blood in his veins or he is prepared to put up with a phenomenal amount of pain.

We got more evidence of the latter three months ago when Ireland played the All Blacks. Maybe he was still high on adrenaline having scored one of Ireland's three tries that day, but the sight of him playing on through a few phases having broken his arm was remarkable. Sucking up the physical stuff is part of what he does. Coping with the mental stress however exposed him to a new weakness.

"Up until the summer I thought I was (equipped)," he says. "It's something that I would work quite hard on with the psychologists. It's something that I feel when I had adversity in a game with Ulster or Ireland I'd just shake it off and, you know, this is where you prove yourself. It was always a challenge, but this just felt like almost one challenge too far.

"When you played in the warm-up games it was obvious where the Test side was going. The teams weren't good enough to provide a test to show anything. We played the Western Force 'B' team basically and beat them by whatever. If you didn't beat a team by 100 points, no one really played well in it, and if you did they were crap, so it was a bit of a struggle. You saw with Seánie O'Brien, he was playing great rugby but it was just sort of passed off as, 'Well, the opposition is crap'."

Best had two average games under his belt when the Brumbies materialised. It was always going to be the Lions toughest non-Test assignment, but the tourists' line-up looked like it had been cobbled together in Canberra Airport.

"Yeah, there was so many (new) people in," he says. "Two games in I felt like I was starting to get this and then I was handed the captaincy and it's just, Jesus, the fear of the unknown all over again. That was just another sort of peak and trough to sort of go: 'Right, this is brilliant to be captain of the Lions but, Jesus, I've never done this before.'

"Even stupid things like 'when you carry the mascot out, where do you put him'? Just stupid things that you've never done before so there's that little bit of fear and you're not really sure about the stuff that you're thinking about instead of concentrating on the rugby."

Four lineouts went south in the first half. He looked like he would have been more comfortable on a gallows. In sports where athletes rely on fingertip accuracy, they need to be happy in their nerve endings. Best was getting messages sent to his brain about separation anxiety: he couldn't let the ball go with confidence.

"That's exactly it. When you're confident you don't even think about it. You just get it through and for a hooker you snap your triceps right down, you flick your fingers and it just goes and it's a perfect spiral and everything is great. When things aren't going well you're holding back a little bit. It was a lineout system I was unfamiliar with. It was basically the English lineout system and jumpers I was unfamiliar with.

"I never got to throw to Paulie in a lineout, just simple things like that that just would have been nice to ease into the first of the Lions, to throw to Paulie, or obviously it would have been ideal if it had been the Irish lineout system. You could just pick it up second nature. But definitely the confidence starts to go. You're not 100 per cent sure where you put it so you kind of hold back a little bit and then when you hold back that's when it can go."

When it was all over he chose home over a desert island. Home, and over the next four weekends he got stuck into a stag and three weddings. "I don't know if that cleansed me but it certainly got me away from rugby mentally," he says.

On Saturday, Best will be back in Lansdowne Road for the itch that needs scratching ahead of Paris. He wouldn't describe the Italy game as the launch pad for a Championship assault but putting them away comprehensively is part of the package that needs to be tied up in Stade de France. The corresponding fixture last season was as bad for Best as for any of the three players who freakishly were carted off in the first 20 minutes. The home team lost just one of 12 throws that day. Ireland could only retain four from nine.

"We'd have a little bit of a point to prove there because we definitely – regardless of what is thrown at you in terms of the adversity – we feel we still should have been better than we were," he says. "We weren't as accurate as we'd have wanted to be and we still had chances. When you look at it there's a few young guys in there that were probably let down by the older guys, the more experienced guys who'd have been able to steer the ship home. We put a lot of pressure on the likes of Jacko (Paddy Jackson) and Mads (Ian Madigan) who were playing 10 and 12, playing almost from the word go because we'd lost so many injuries.

"They just kept coming at us and we couldn't quieten them. We struggled up front and as I say we didn't get a hold of the game there and we let them bully us at ruck time; we let them bully us at the scrum and the lineout didn't go well. We struggled. They were all over us and we couldn't breathe. We were probably very quick to look at our halfbacks and say: 'Help us out here.' Conor's (Murray) reasonably young – he's got a lot of experience now as an international but back then he didn't have as much. We had Jacko playing maybe his fourth game. Mads had only played a handful as well, so we probably looked at them too quickly instead of trying to sort it out up front and take them on. You'll hear a lot over the next 10 days: 'Oh if you want to beat Italy you'll have to front up and take them on up front and we didn't do that last year.' The result speaks volumes for what happens when you don't do that."

They'll do it on Saturday against an ageing Italy forward pack who started the Championship with seven of eight forwards over 31. They've got the age down a bit since then, but not with much effect. Best of Banbridge meantime will hit 32 in August. Our Ulsterian takes great pleasure in what he describes as, "The development of a fairly nervous, quiet lad, into an impressive character – a team leader who is not afraid to challenge people." He got that right.

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