If Rory Best was in any doubt over his physical fitness at the grand old age of 37, then a Joe Schmidt training ground special in Portugal put an end to such thoughts.
Picture the scene; the forwards leaving the gym after shifting some iron around, walking out into the blistering sunshine and expecting a handy 45 minutes or so passing the ball around — “some skills, you know, nice and fluffy”, Best said.
But the faces on the backs walking into the gym — after completing their own skills segment — put no little fear in Best’s mind.
Joe Schmidt was taking the training. Another red flag.
“I think the first day of training summed it up,” he explained, “Normally, when you go back for pre-season, you build into it. The third or fourth week is when you are really getting hammered.
“But on the first day we did speed and weights and then we had skills, and we should have known when it was Joe taking the skills, that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“We were in the gym last, the front five, and we saw the backs coming in and I went ‘what on earth?’
“We did this drill which was probably the hardest fitness drill I have ever done in my life.
“You just lie on your back. Two people lie in top of you (Niall Scannell and Seán Cronin). You have to fight them off, pick up a ball up, run into somebody else, do your body bag, place it, while he lies on you.
“You have to throw him off and get up again. You do six of those, twice around.
“When you do three up and you turn, knowing you’ve three more on the way down, you are going, ‘what on earth, how am I going to get through this?’ But you find a way.”
With Best, Scannell, Cronin, and Rob Herring fighting for three seats on the plane to Japan, the Ulster man knew he had to front up.
With the World Cup coming up, and the hooker retiring immediately after it, he knew he was free to put everything he has into these coming two months.
“Do you know what, I feel really good, and I think that pre-season is a really good time to show it,” he said.
“Especially in a World Cup year, because normally you do pre-season back in your province, and probably in Ulster you’re looked after a little bit more.
“But this is everyone in on day one and you’re going head-to-head with everyone, and there’s four hookers and only three are going to get on the plane. It’s a great time to test yourself against them, and I feel I stood up.
"Ten years ago I was 27 and I don’t feel any different, and I’m excited.”
Best was questioned widely after a poor display — as part of a wider disappointment — in the heavy defeat to England in Twickenham, but says he retained the faith of Schmidt, who told him that if there was any serious concern over his ability, the coach would be the first man to tell him.
Still, he did sit through a 45 minute dressing down after the Twickenham defeat, a loss that led the team’s leaders to reassert the team’s ‘mantra’ — a call for the return to basics, without forgetting what makes an Ireland team special.
“I think I get worried when Joe stands at the front of the room when he says we’re going well and we’re in a good spot,” Best said,
“We are at our best when Joe goes hard at us, because that’s what he does.
“He’s hard, he’s a perfectionist and he stood up at the front and we had a 45-minute meeting about the England game and the shape we were in.
“He just basically tore us apart, the individuals within it and then we had a five-minute break and then he started to build us up back up again, and that’s when I think he is at his best.
“When you get beaten like that you go ‘right, we need to be unbelievably forthright and honest with one another’ and say where are we?
“We sat down, and we’ve something of a mantra in the team that had been there since Joe [arrived] and it’s about the basics of our game being so important, our preparation, and we just said ‘this is what we live by’, but maybe because it started so long ago and so much of the squad was not there, we maybe need to get something we own and we need to take ownership of it.
“If you talk about my early days — Ireland was blood and thunder for 60 minutes, then hang on for grim death.
“With all respect we weren’t as good as other nations with our ability.
“Now we’ve got this ability to compete, this coach who drills us and makes sure everything is right and probably in the Six Nations just gone, that England game, we just forgot that there is an Irish element to it all, where you wear your heart on your sleeve and that’s what we felt we needed to get back to.”