Rory Best is on the final stretch of a journey that began almost 14 years ago, but the events of the next few months will go a long way towards shaping how the Ireland captain will look back on his distinguished international career.
Despite all the trophies and the milestones accumulated over his 117 caps to date, the World Cup remains a sore spot, the one challenge that has inflicted more misery and soul-searching on Ireland teams than any other.
The upcoming tournament in Japan will be his fourth, and last, with Best set to retire when Ireland’s interest ends. At his first, in 2007, Ireland failed to get out of their pool. In 2011 and 2015, they suffered crushing quarter-final defeats to Wales and Argentina respectively.
Should Ireland reach the last four for the first time in Japan, Best will bow out on a high, but a demoralising Six Nations campaign earlier this year has suppressed the warm glow that surrounded this squad following the supreme highs of 2018.
Just nine months have passed from that famous defeat of New Zealand at Lansdowne Road, yet as Ireland prepare for the first of their warm-up games, nobody really knows what to expect from Joe Schmidt’s side anymore.
“You try to avoid it but you can’t, people saying we peaked in ’18, that we did this, that and the other, or we’re predictable or whatever,” said Best.
“If we can get ourselves in the next four games into a position where we can explode into the tournament on the 22nd (of September, against Scotland), I think that will speak volumes about the job the coaches have done, but also the job this leadership group has done, and that is the big thing. Just to make sure that we’re in the best possible place because, like for me, I’ll never get another opportunity.
“Those regrets will stay with you forever and that is ultimately what I don’t want (this time).”
The Ulster hooker, who turns 37 next week, is confident Ireland are on the right track to rediscover the form that saw them conquer all around them in 2018. One of the key differences between Schmidt’s Ireland and the teams who went before is that the current group will back themselves regardless of the situation, and can find positives from even the most unlikely of scenarios.
Best, who is not expected to feature in Saturday’s clash with Italy, believes the problems facing the squad are perhaps not as concerning as many onlookers would suggest.
“We took a look back at the start (of the Six Nations) at things we did well, and looked at what we didn’t do well. Even against England, everyone talked about the opening passage, that marker, and that they battered us, but when you look at that, they caught us on the hop with the throw over the top and that got them momentum for a few phases,” he explained.
“The next six, seven, eight phases, they didn’t go anywhere, we were really comfortable. We made one mistake and they got in on the wing. In international rugby that’s what you want. If we were in Twickenham, Joe would be going ‘here’s the gameplan, over the top lineout, thump them, thump them, thump them, get them on the way back and score.’
“When we make a mistake and that happens, I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘this is how Eddie (Jones) told us this would be, this is brilliant.’ If we had went through that defensive set, maybe got a turnover, nullified them, then all of a sudden they’re thinking ‘Eddie told us this was going to work and we haven’t scored.’ You sink a little bit. We allowed them to be big.
“That one small moment at the wrong time can cost you dearly.”
By the time Best hangs up his boots later this autumn, we will know if those lessons have been properly heeded.
- Rory Best is a brand ambassador for Flogas, the all-Ireland energy company.