A rueful smile colonises Rory Best’s face at the mention of Parc des Princes and 2007.
Amidst all of this week’s talk about Cardiff and the World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina two years ago, the haunting pool stage exit at the Pumas’ hands a decade ago has scarcely merited a mention. Until yesterday, when the game’s sole survivor fronted up after his captain’s run.
Best was at the foothills of a Test career that has now hit 105 caps without yet parking that late September day in Paris 10 years ago. His involvement stretched to 14 minutes off the bench in place of Jerry Flannery after earlier runs against Namibia and Georgia.
In fairness to him, he trawled back over the mess in some detail.
The last-minute drop goal needed to see off Italy in a worrying warm-up game in Ravenhill. The Battle of Bayonne, when Brian O’Driscoll shipped a punch and suffered a fractured sinus. The near-death experience in the opener against Georgia. The hotel in a Bordeaux industrial estate.
And the rest.
“That disappointment, when you look back and put everything down, that World Cup will certainly be in the top three in terms of most disappointing moments in my career. To go there off the back of being two minutes away from Grand Slamming, from all the hope generated by the Six Nations beforehand…”
Argentina got to land the killer blow.
Ireland went into that pool game having already lost to the hosts and needing to score four tries and win by eight points. They never looked remotely likely to do it and the Pumas revelled in their role as executioners of a team with whom they had enjoyed a spiky relationship.
“Nothing clicked for us in that tournament and, by the time it got to the Argentina game, there was almost a feeling around the camp — and I will never forget it — that people just wanted to go home,” Best remembers. “They had had enough.
“We obviously went out there knowing we needed a performance of a lifetime to beat them and everyone was just fed up. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a squad like that since. It’s hard to say what happened, but I think there was so much being thrown at us (that) we weren’t playing well.
“We were stuck in that place down in Bordeaux and it was really not pleasant at all. Argentina, to be fair to them, that World Cup, they surprised a lot of people. They were phenomenal. Right from the first game when they beat France, everyone thought ‘oh, right, ok’. Everyone thought it was between us and France to top the group.”
All of which will mean little to people like Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan who start alongside Best against the Pumas today. Both were just 11 years of age when that ill-fated campaign was brought to a premature end by the Pumas in France.
Best’s record against the South Americans — two World Cup losses and three wins in between — shows how Argentina have excelled at peaking at the right time while Ireland have not and it’s a reason why consistency remains a key goal for this generation of Irish players.
Acing their exams in Japan in 2019 will be key to that.
The quarter-final loss to Argentina in Cardiff in 2015 stands as the foundation rock on everything Joe Schmidt is doing now. The influx of so much youth this month is proof that the Ireland head coach is determined to build greater depth and guard against further World Cup lamentations.
“The most impressive thing now is the way we’ve tried to create an environment where if you don’t keep up we won’t drag you along, you get cut loose and everyone has bought into that,” said Best who extolled the team’s greater strength in depth.
“The encouraging thing is that it is good to see people one-on-one with the computer going through stuff, but when you go into mini units and chatting and working through things, it means everyone is on the same page.
“It helps if everyone knows what is going on and the young guys have bought into what we have been trying to push. As a player group, and as a captain, we had probably let that slip a little.
“We still have done more detail and more homework over the last couple of years than any team I have probably been involved in, but we were probably falling a couple of percent short in that we were allowing people to make mistakes.”
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