With his globetrotting Barbarians adventures concluded, and his first week of retirement finally upon him, Rory Best could easily have put on his slippers and emptied his mind of all rugby thoughts.
Instead, the 37-year-old came to Dublin yesterday and opened up thoughtfully on the past two seasons — one that delivered a captaincy-defining Grand Slam, and one that ended his career on a devastating low.
While others within the Ireland camp, particularly those with aspirations to continue into the Andy Farrell era, might keep their counsel on what changed between 2018 and 2019, Best was happy to speak in remarkably candid style.
There was, the ex-Ulster and Ireland captain admits, a hint of complacency following a 2018 where they swept all before them, and he also questioned the selection decisions ahead of Ireland’s second World Cup pool game against Japan.
But the strongest words were reserved for himself and Joe Schimdt.
Which way you chose to interpret the sharing of the blame, Best clearly believes the coaching team had assumed too much control this year, particularly close to big games — while the players, himself especially, failed to stand up and fight their corner.
Following their record defeat to England in Twickenham, Best and the team’s leadership group told Schmidt they needed to regain the control they enjoyed in 2018 — and they got their way.
But when the crunch games against Japan and New Zealand in Shizuoka and Yokohama arrived, the power reverted to those in tracksuits.
“We started to just let Joe do everything, but the great thing about ‘18 was we had our own voice, our own mind,” said Best.
“In ‘19, that end of the week space was starting to be filled a bit much with coaches, and that’s one thing that ... at the end of that England defeat [in Twickenham], we sat down with Joe and said ‘we trust you implicitly, we know you’ll get the tactics right, but you’re going to have to trust us that from captain’s run onwards, let us build in our own way’.”
Best promised the players would put some structure on the captains run, to appease Schmidt’s desire for structure — a trait Best shares — and they were rewarded with two wins against Wales, victories that helped them to the top of the world rankings.
“Those two performances, under pressure, were good performances, Scotland [in Yokohama] was good, then, but when you had this bit of complacency, something happens to shock you back out of it. Then you’re on edge, on edge, on edge, then you have that Scotland performance and it was almost as if ‘hoo, we’re back to where we were in 2018’, and it was almost as if we’d roll on from here.
“Then we got back together again, and that’s the one game [Japan] — as a player group, we needed to be stronger in that space.”
Best says that if the players did not ‘fill that space’ at the end of the week, the coaches would take over, and that’s what happened in the quarter-final hammering by New Zealand.
“I think we didn’t do enough to fill it, and me as captain, ultimately, I’ve to take a fair bit of responsibility,” Best admitted. “We were just happy enough to go ‘we know how good Joe is, and if he says it’s right, it’s right’, rather than say ‘you know what?’... and on some occasions, we didn’t challenge him a bit.
“Could we have challenged him more? I don’t know if that would have changed anything, but that is something you have to live with from our point of view. It’s easy to say they got the prep wrong, they got the selection wrong, they got this and that wrong, whereas ultimately I think as a player group, and me leading it, we should have stepped up a bit more during the Six Nations, when it was going wrong, and tried to lead a bit more.”
The captain’s run — traditionally a light training session the day before a match — was an easy fix, according to Best, a day that had become filled with too much detail, too little fun.
“We don’t need lengthy meetings beforehand, where they [coaches] deliver unbelievable detail ... so we suggested putting a meeting in on Thursday evening, to go ‘right, anything you need covered, do it now’, then from Friday morning there’s no meetings [with the coaches].
“We’d sit down as a player group and do our meetings, then we go off and do a captain’s run, especially if you’re in an away stadium, you don’t run the risk of doing anything ... Everyone’s so uptight you can have a bit of craic, a little bit of touch, just to ease the tension.
“But people build their own way over the next 24 hours, and I think that’s one thing, after the England game we said we’d do that, and we probably took the foot off gas a little bit.
“Instead of saying ‘right, get your meetings done’, we let it be ‘oh we’ll do the meeting Friday’, and I kinda went ‘ok, yeah, I trust you whatever you want’.”
That trust extended all the way to Yokohama and the game that would leave a stain on Schmidt’s Ireland career; his second World Cup quarter-final defeat.
“That was a really funny one because that was probably the best we’d trained in, I can’t remember how long,” Best said.
“Whether we got ourselves so hyped up, as soon as we knew it was the All Blacks, it was like ‘right, the pressure is on.’ That week, Tuesday through Thursday, was really, really good. Whatever happened, the morning of the New Zealand game, the coaches wanted a huddle and to go over plays. I think there was a little worry at that stage that we hadn’t emphasised something enough.
“We had one before that England game where we talked about the threat of Ben Youngs, all that happened was we talk about the threat and then he made — I don’t know how many linebreaks — just by scooting. Exactly what we talked about. I thought that probably happened before the New Zealand game.
“It took three or four people to drop passes and to be put out before there was a big ripple of laughter. Everyone was a little bit ... too much detail, too much tension. If I’d known it was happening, I’d have probably said, ‘look, I don’t think we need this.’
“Joe just needed to trust, he’s the best coach I’ve ever worked with bar nobody, but just trust that it’s there...
“It was a big game for him, such a big game for me. We both knew that lose and we’re out, we’re done, our careers over. Well, he might come back [coaching] but certainly our Irish careers. That creates tension in itself. You want to make sure no stone is left unturned, sometimes you do that and you end up spoon feeding the players and you go ‘right, okay, that’s been said and that’s good enough, that’ll prepare us for it.’”
Ultimately, that was Schmidt’s last act as Ireland head coach, and one wonders what the New Zealander will make of such a revelation just two weeks after his own book gave little or no insight into the same challenging period.
The Kiwi barely touched on the World Cup in any seriously reflective way, but listening to Best, this was a car crash 10 months in the making.
“You’re looking back but I think a very, very small level of complacency has to have kicked in,” he said.
“I think we believed what everyone was saying, and you know, you’re very quick to go ‘don’t believe what they’re saying’ when it’s negative, but you’re never as quick to say it whenever it’s positive.
“People should be more like that, and we should have been more streetwise... but we swept the world of rugby [last year], Grand Slam, autumn, swept the World Rugby awards, and I think we went to Portugal and probably slipped back to where we’d been pre-Joe.
“We always talked how we nearly wasted those training camps before that week, it was seen as a ‘get the feet up to recover’ and while I don’t think we slipped that far back, I don’t think as a player group that we’d done the work we did in the 12 months previous, or 24 months previous to that.
“Whenever you start to leave little bits undone, they’ll always come back to bite you, and when you least want them to.
“For me, there has to have been a level of complacency. But you could ask how many have there been involved since the start of 2019, the 40- odd players, they’ll all give you different answers.”
That complacency appeared an obvious explanation outside the camp but until now, nobody has dared admit such a thing.
Critics have suggested there was too often a reliance on player reputation above form, and Best hinted at that being an issue ahead of the crunch Pool game against Japan.
He said: “The logic of what we did at the time felt right: let’s just go really heavy at the first two games and then we can take two weeks into the next game, make a lot of changes and it is only now you look back and you see the real attrition in that first game [Scotland], the six day turnaround, with the move, the heat and everything.
“There is always in a team a few people who are really close [to selection], really nip and tuck, and someone might be a better player but someone is coming behind them who is on fire, and is playing above what they can do. You wonder whether a couple of those changes could have happened but, again, you are dealing in hindsight.
“If you inject Dave Kilcoyne to start that game, was that ripple effect, the burst of energy, someone coming in with the carrot of ‘you might be a starter for us — you are playing in the big game’ and the ripple effect. For me personally, it was tough. With me it’s difficult one, at 37, playing 80 minutes to six days later turning around and playing again but then if you do not play your captain, what does that say?
“I think we looked like a group of players who needed an injection of energy from somewhere and we just didn’t quite get it.”
Not enough energy, too much control. Best may have written Schmidt’s World Cup epitaph.
- Rory Best, a Specsavers Audiologists’ Ambassador, was launching the Specsavers Grandparent of the Year Award 2019.