Ireland captain Rory Best believes tonight’s Six Nations showdown with Wales will be the litmus test of his side’s progress over the last six months.
The Irish reached the penultimate round of the championship still chasing a third title in four seasons and with a potentially decisive showdown with England back in Dublin on March 18.
Yet the opening-round defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield on February 4 has left Ireland effectively playing knockout rugby game by game just to stay on the coat-tails of the still unbeaten English.
They have rebounded with wins over Italy and France but after a stellar November which saw Best lead his side to a historic win over New Zealand and also beat Australia, there are still questions to be answered as they get ready to face Wales at the Principality Stadium tonight as the captain is only too aware.
“Within the next 36 hours, we will find out a lot,” Best said yesterday. “To come to a place like this and perform in an intense atmosphere will be a big statement of where we are, and a big statement of where the squad is because it is going to take a 23-man effort. The last quarter of the game, you would imagine, is going to be finely balanced and it is going to take the bench coming on … and fitting in seamlessly. That is going to be a mark of where this Irish squad is.
“Whatever about November, and the French game, bar the Chicago game, they were all at home. If you look at results historically, it is perceived to be easier to play at home. This will be a big statement of where we are as a squad and how mentally tough we are.”
Ireland confirmed yesterday they had agreed to comply with Welsh wishes to keep the stadium roof closed for tonight’s game, a first for Best’s side in the Six Nations, although they played under cover here three times during the 2015 World Cup, against Canada, France and Argentina. That suits lineout thrower Best and his goal-kicking fly-half Johnny Sexton just fine.
“I think there’s a little bit of rain forecast and I suppose Joe asked myself and Johnny first,” the captain said. “When you ask kickers and throwers do they want to run the risk of being wet and windy or do they want to take all of that out of the equation and make sure it’s dry with minimal wind, well I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision but that was the real reason for us as players. When you come here and you’re playing Wales, you know it’s going to be loud - regardless of the roof being open or closed. It’s going to be really, really loud.
“From an international point of view, it’s one of the best stadiums in the world to play in because the atmosphere is just electric. I’m sure on a Friday night it’s going to be as good if not better than anything we’ve experienced.
“For that, you’ve got to be prepared to know that if you feel like you’re shouting at team-mates in a normal game, you’re going to have to really scream at each other here because it’s going to be really hard to hear each other.
“At the same time, it’s a group that’s been together for a long time, so you have to rely on a little bit of instinct, a little bit of reading each other, a little bit of knowing that with players and the mentality they have, knowing they’ll rise to a really tough occasion.”
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