IT ISN’T just his Ulster savvy at the heart of the front-row that makes Rory Best such a huge asset for Ireland. It’s his honesty, too.
Mention the Grand Slam of 2009 and the run of failure that has followed it and the hooker says, yes, though his team is laced with Heineken Cup winners and excellence in many positions, as a collective they have not delivered. No sugar-coating the record. No evading the question. They haven’t kicked on in three years and it’s about time they did, he admits.
“Disappointing,” is the word he uses to describe the years since 2009. “Within the provinces, we’ve all won big games and we’ve all got to the finals of major competitions. You look at last weekend. Munster, Leinster and Ulster all won big games in the Heineken Cup when there was a lot riding on them and I think to not have kicked on after the Grand Slam... You want to go on and win everything you can and we haven’t done that and I think there’s collective responsibility.”
He talks about everyone needing to take a long hard look at themselves. The union, the coaches and most of all, the players. “We’ve lost silly games. We’ve done stupid things we don’t normally do. Like, at home to Wales last year, we were more than a score up with ten minutes to go and we lost. It was like an elephant in the room for a long time. We didn’t sit down and have frank discussions. We’ve had that this year.”
Even before the autumn internationals Best was talking about an honesty session that needed to take place in the Ireland camp. With 62 caps to his name and no problem about speaking his mind, Best felt that the nature of Ireland’s preparation for Test matches needed to be looked at. He felt that not enough work was being done, that they were coming in to Ireland camp on the back of tough Heineken Cup games and easing off a little bit in the early part of a Test week. By the time they had cranked up the intensity in training it was almost too late, he felt.
That change has now been made, he says. The preparatory work is getting done earlier and better and as a consequence he feels better about this Six Nations than he did about the last one and the one before that. “Too often over the last five seasons we’ve been basically out of the Six Nations after the first two games and, you know, you don’t have anything to fight for and it’s hard to keep pushing on when we all want to win things and you’re not in a position to do that.”
After an average 2012 Six Nations and an emotional rollercoaster of a summer tour to New Zealand – very nearly winning the second Test and then getting blitzed 60-0 in the third – the optimism comes from their dismantling of an Argentina team that had beaten Wales earlier in the autumn. More than 40 points (and seven tries) against an in-form team has restored some confidence even in the absence from the tournament of Paul O’Connell and Tommy Bowe, with another totem, Stephen Ferris, also on the missing list for now.
There is still vast experience in this team but what pleases Best more than anything is the recent addition of youth in the guise of his club-mate, Craig Gilroy, who was like a dervish on his debut against the Pumas, and Simon Zebo, the Munster wing who is another dangerous presence in a backline that has for too long looked ponderous. Brian O’Driscoll is also back, but not as captain. Free of the burden of the leadership role there is hope that he will fly again.
“A lot of us have played 50-plus Test matches but there’s still that spine of youth which you need, that sort of fearlessness that makes these boys step up in their first cap and want the ball and want to go and hit things,” says Best. “I think we have a nice blend now. The Argentina result just gives the whole group a lot of confidence, not that we’ll be over-confident, not after one performance that was three or four months ago, I don’t think we’re there, but we have to take the good points from it.”
It was the tempo of the performance against Argentina that made him think that they are on to something, the return of the kind of intensity they used to show when they were at their best. And that brings him on to Wales, their opponents in week one. The Millennium Stadium has happy memories for so many Irish fans. Munster won both of their Heineken Cups there. Leinster won one of their three in the same ground. Ireland’s only Grand Slam since 1948 was sealed in the very same place, so it’s special. They love playing there. The problem is that the team they will be facing have become something of a bogey side.
Wales have won the last three head-to-heads, one in Cardiff, one in Dublin and one in New Zealand in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Best knows that momentum is everything in the Six Nations. You win your first game and anything is possible. You lose it and life can become very difficult very quickly. So Best is focused on Wales and nothing else. “At the World Cup we kind of believed our own hype a little bit and felt that we were going places and that Wales was the draw that we wanted in the quarter-final. And then they came out and physically dominated us and we really couldn’t get our breath in that match.”
Losing that game was a heartbreaker and more of the same soon followed when Wales went to Dublin. Ireland looked to have the match in the palm of their hands when establishing a two-score advantage, but then they let it slide.
“We stopped playing and they just marched up the pitch two or three times in a row and ultimately won the game and deservedly so. They came and they attacked us. I don’t think we got intimidated but we certainly got bullied by their big backs, especially when they got across the gainline. Not just off set-piece but in general play as well. They were getting across the gainline. Whether we underestimated their size or whatever it was, we just weren’t on the money in terms of the physicality we like to bring.”
Wales bullied them. It’s a hell of a thing to have to admit. But, of course, it’s true. “They are big men but that is the good thing about the RaboDirect league. We play against them every week, so we’re used to dealing with their size and we just have to make sure that we deal with them as well as we do at club level.” The upside this time around is that the Welsh backs who did the damage in Dublin are not playing with the same devastation as they were this time last year. Or maybe they’re just saving their best stuff for Ireland.
“Whenever a team beats you three times in a row it’s never a good place to be. We’re confident in our ability but, given the last three results, we’re not really in much of a position to talk about doing a number on them. We have a lot of confidence in this group, though. A lot of confidence in what we can do and we need to take that out on Saturday and show them. In the Wales camp, of course you’d be very confident of beating Ireland. You’ve done it three times in a row, at home, in New Zealand and away, so they’re going to be confident going back to their own stadium.
“But it’s a fresh start for us. We’ll have a good look at them and see what they’re doing and hopefully we can come up with the right formula to beat them this time round.”
The victory over Argentina has given rise to the first stirring of a new optimism, even allowing for the blow of losing their great talisman O’Connell. They have another in Best, a player who is as driven as any other and whose importance to the cause is immense. Ireland have underachieved. Cardiff is when they have to start making amends.