Rory Best began the week being compared to a fine wine, such has been the Ireland captain’s improvement with age, and the man of the hour yesterday described winning his 100th Test cap as his greatest achievement in rugby.
Compliments tend to mean something when a player reaches such a milestone in international sport, and Best has had plenty ringing in his ears ahead of this evening’s Test against Australia.
The 34-year-old hooker becomes his country’s fifth rugby centurion after fellow front-rower John Hayes, Ronan O’Gara, and his predecessors as captain, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. Hayes and O’Gara were on the starting XV the day Best made his debut off a bench, also including his older brother Simon, to face the All Blacks at the start of a Test career that has seen the hooker give thanks for every one of his subsequent caps. Yet, none will be treasured more than the one he will receive in Dublin this evening.
“It means a whole lot, I grew up in very much a rugby-playing family,” said Best yesterday.
“We came down to very much the old-fashioned Lansdowne Road as family to watch. We went up to the Ulster games as a family to watch. I think to go from that, being immersed in it so much, to then get the opportunity to put on the green jersey once was unbelievably special. To do it alongside Simon at the time with all the family here and to have done it so many times since, like every time there is a slightly different feeling as you pull it on.
“I suppose as you go through your career, you get more grateful for every time you get to pull it on, but I just have a massive amount of pride every time I put on that jersey and to be asked last year to captain Ireland regularly is, look for me there is no greater honour.
“When I do look back, this will rank up there as one of, if not the best, achievement.”
Judging by the plaudits Best received from the Irish management this week, the hooker’s contribution to Ireland’s cause has never been more valued. Defence coach Andy Farrell, sitting alongside him yesterday following the team’s captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium, said he was playing the best rugby of his career since he accepted the captaincy from head coach Joe Schmidt at the start of the Six Nations last February and he described his attributes as those befitting a captain of the British & Irish Lions.
Schmidt said Best’s captaincy drew comparisons with O’Connell’s, the man he succeeded in the role.
“He’s calm in the moments when you need to be calm, when you need to get your heart-rate down and be accurate, but when you need your heart rate up and you need to be working, he can be leading there, as well,” the Ireland boss said.
“To be fair to Besty, the biggest two similarities I’d make with him and Paul O’Connell are, one, their preparation; they go through the most thorough preparation they can to make sure physically they’re ready to go.
“Two, neither of them say a lot. Neither of them talk a lot. There are other guys who say things in the team, he is action-focused and he just gets on and does his bits of the game really well and he’ll spur others on when required. I’ve the utmost respect for him.”
It was Ulster team-mate and friend Andrew Trimble who made the comparison with fine wine and Ireland lock Devin Toner, the recipient of the lion’s share of Best’s throws from touch, is another connoisseur.
“His throws are integral and he’s one of the best around at it,” said Toner. “I love playing with him, he’s a class captain who speaks really passionately about everything. When he speaks, you want to listen. People have said that about Paulie in the past and it’s the same with Besty.
“He’s really well respected by everyone in the squad and you just know he’s professional in everything he does. He’s always hanging back, throwing more balls. He’s always kind of working on loads of stuff, so he’s a really good role model to younger guys in the squad. To be able to play 100 games for Ireland is unbelievable, a real testament for him.”
Playing better than ever? Best was, unsurprisingly, more modest in his assessment than his coaches and team-mates.
“Look, I feel that I am playing well. I think there is a lot made about it whenever you turn 30. Everyone says that you’re done, but for me, age is just a number.
“When you’ve never been overly fast and you lose a little bit of pace when you get a bit older, it doesn’t really matter. You hopefully make it up in your head.
“I don’t see that I’m playing any worse than I ever did so look, I feel fit. I feel happy with my game and the big thing for me is that I’m really enjoying it.”
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