Even with a 747 at his disposal, Marco Polo would probably have thought twice about rushing to map out Rory Best’s last rugby journey, from Armagh to Yokohama.
The fearless Italian explorer could have navigated his way from A to Y without any insulting hi-tech aids like sat nav but history and commonsense would have told him that he could not guarantee completing the trip in one piece.
The tricky bit is not getting to Japan but surviving the ferocity of six matches en route to the final in Yokohama and nobody will understand that better than Ireland’s venerable captain.
After some 15 years in a seriously hazardous occupation, Best is not about to change the habit of a lifetime and start tempting the gods now.
“Hopefully,” he says. “The second of November (World Cup final-day in Yokohama) will be my last game.”
Another venerable Ireland captain, Paul O’Connell, would have said much the same going into the last World Cup four years ago, having announced his Test retirement before the tournament began: “Hopefully, the 31st of October at Twickenham will be my last game.”
Instead, the final coincided with O’Connell enduring a fate more painfully anti-climactic than Ireland’s, quite something considering how the Argentinian matadors ran them dizzy in the quarter-final.
By then, the skipper’s last World Cup had been destroyed by a hamstring injury against France so severe that he would never be able to play a single match for Toulon.
Picking the perfect time to go in any theatre of sport is fraught with danger.
The old showbiz maxim about leaving them laughing and clamouring for more is based on the premise of resisting the temptation to overstay the welcome.
Of all the World Cup-winning captains, only two have got out at the very top: Richie McCaw at Twickenham in 2015 and Martin Johnson in Sydney 12 years earlier.
Even then, Johnson played on for Leicester Tigers oblivious to the suspicion that the gods had, by then, given him enough.
Within weeks of seeing him lift the ultimate pot of gold, a young Best saw Johnson on the wrong end of a 33-0 beating by Ulster at Ravenhill.
At least the Tigers had time to avenge that defeat, unlike the stinging nature of Johnson’s last stand, a one-sided Premiership Grand Final against Wasps at a packed Twickenham.
Brian O’Driscoll was smart enough and lucky enough to go out on a high, his last Test, in Paris five years ago, clinching the Six Nations title.
Even he wound up pushing his luck a few weeks later in Leinster’s PRO 12 final against Glasgow, injury reducing him to lame-duck status before joining fellow retiree Leo Cullen on the podium.
Others disappear almost without trace, like Gavin Henson whose invisible exit seems all the more implausible for one who took time out from rugby to pursue an alternative career as a celebrity based on his romance with the singer Charlotte Church.
The Welsh Lion, whose unusually frank autobiography told of an altercation with O’Driscoll during the Grand Slam clincher against Ireland in 2005, reached the semi-finals of Strictly Come Dancing a few years later before a television audience of almost 10 million.
The terracotta-tanned one followed that with a Polar trek in 71 Degrees North for ITV and on Channel 5 as The Bachelor, who has to choose from 25 women all, as the promotional blurb put it, ‘doing whatever it takes to impress Gavin’. It did nothing for his rugby but a lot for his bank balance.
The Dragons, Henson’s 10th club, are not renewing his contract which leaves him at 37 rapidly running out of an 11th club.
Sadly, recurring injury prevented him from even the teeniest of bit parts for one last appearance at the Millennium Stadium on the occasion of last weekend’s Judgement Day double-header.
Philo’s entertaining referee retort stands the test of time
Joe Marler’s rant during a pregnant pause in the Exeter-Harlequins’ match last Sunday evoked memories of a not dissimilar exchange on the subject of boredom revolving round one of Munster’s more colourful props.
“You’re f***ing boring me,” ex-England loosehead Marler shouted at Nic White as Exeter’s Australian scrum-half went through the tedious preparation used by scrum-halves in readiness for a box-kick. “Hurry up.”
He may not thank me for any comparison with Marler but the remark will have struck a chord with Cork’s very own Philo O’Callaghan.
Over the course of propping the Ireland scrum 21 times for almost 10 years from 1967, O’Callaghan fell foul of the referee during an England match.
“You’re boring,” he told O’Callaghan, penalising him for ‘boring’ in on the opposition front-row from an illegal angle.
O’Callaghan, whose sharp wit never left him speechless whatever the scenario, had the last word: “Now that you mention it, ref, you’re not so entertaining yourself…”
Time soccer used head
After years when rugby has slavishly followed soccer on a variety of subjects, from red and yellow cards to the minute’s applause instead of silence, the boot ought now to be on the other foot, so to speak.
Jan Vertonghen’s sickening collision during the Spurs-Ajax Champions’ League semi-final and subsequent withdrawal in a distressed state not long after being cleared to return, has raised serious questions.
To prevent a repeat all they need do is introduce the temporary substitution as allowed in Rugby Union while the player is given sufficient time to undergo the concussion protocols.
Club rugby’s Six Nations straitjacket
Europe, as viewed through the prism of professional club rugby, remains a depressingly small place, almost as small today as when the inaugural tournament got off the ground almost a quarter of a century ago.
Leinster-Saracens on May 11 will be the 24th final and while the organisers can justifiably claim to be breaking new ground at St James’ Park on Tyneside, the bigger picture suggests it is nothing of the kind.
Of those finals, all but one have been hosted in the UK, France and Ireland.
In other words, only once have the clubs and unions running the event broken out of their Six Nations straitjacket and plucked up the courage to take it to a non-rugby country, to Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium in the Basque Country last year when Leinster squeezed past Racing.
More than 50,000 made it quite an occasion but European Professional Club Rugby, to give them their full title, hardly appear to be in a rush to spread the gospel to great football-obsessed cities like Madrid and Munich.
Before the clubs wrestled control some five years ago, the unions had belatedly addressed that issue by selecting the San Siro in Milan for the 2015 final, an all-French affair between Toulon and Clermont.
Instead they were re-directed to Twickenham. Milan is still waiting.
Next year’s final will go to Marseilles and the state-of-the-art Stade Velodrome, a most worthy venue but again it smacks of a safety-first decision.
Amsterdam, a leading candidate for the 2021 final, has withdrawn its bid for reasons which remain unclear.
As the home of the event’s long-term title sponsors, the Dutch city would have given the ‘European’ bit of the Champions’ Cup some sorely needed meaning.
The Johann Cryuff Arena with its 54,990 seats seems an ideal setting for rugby to reach new frontiers.
All Black Whitelock gets ‘Sexton’ dispensation
Just as no Irish player can be employed elsewhere and still play for Ireland unless his name happens to be Johnny Sexton, so the All Blacks are offering their most valuable players special dispensation to the same rule.
The chosen few starting with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter has now extended to Sam Whitelock.
A new deal struck with the NZRFU will allow the Crusaders lock to be available for All Black selection next year despite his yen for a money-making exercise in Japan.
For lesser mortals, that would have been at the expense of their Test career.
Whitelock’s status as the natural captaincy successor once Kieran Read goes after the World Cup (where else but Japan?) makes him a special case, so special that his deal extends to a season away from Super Rugby.