For Rory Best, Ireland’s premature exit from the 2019 Rugby World Cup was not the way he would have wanted to sign off on his decorated career.
With the rest of the squad, there is an opportunity to right some wrongs by getting back on track at provincial level in the white heat of European Cup rugby and, of course, the 2020 Six Nations, which is less than two months away, will help ease the pain.
For Best, touring with the Barbarians would have helped slightly but ultimately, his last international appearance in what was his 124th cap was seeing his side outclassed by a rampant New Zealand side on a miserable night for Irish rugby in Tokyo.
The fallout won’t be felt by anyone more strongly than Best. He poured his heart and soul into attempting to create history in 2019 but it wasn’t to be.
It has now been over six weeks since that night at the Tokyo Stadium and when asked if within that time, he had a greater sense as to what happened at the World Cup and in 2019, the 37-year-old put it rather bluntly.
“You know, I think sometimes in sport you just get it wrong,” Best said speaking as a Specsavers Audiologists’ Ambassador.
But why did Ireland get it wrong? That’s the question Irish supporters are desperately seeking an answer to.
Former head coach Joe Schmidt has provided a little bit of insight lately as he promotes his new book by stating that Ireland focussed on the World Cup too far out and drifted away from their game-to-game mentality which proved so successful in the past.
Best’s explanation is interesting and is in the same ballpark as he suggests the players slacked off slightly in their preparation after what was an incredibly successful 2018 which included a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and a victory over the All Blacks.
“There was a feeling where when we turned up and we prepared, I think we underestimated how much the preparation got the result. And I think there was almost a feeling of no matter who we play here, we beat them. And we kind of forgot that that happens because of the extra stuff we are doing in and around our training and our preparation, and I think we were 1% down maybe on that.
“I’m picking numbers out of the air but 1% down, when you put that across 31 players at a World Cup, and put that across [with the fact] you are also now seen as a contender, so people are at least going to be at least 1% better, and the swing can actually end up being quite big at this level, because you are at the top end of your game.”
If something like this was happening over a period of time, one would hope that the coaches or the leadership group would be able to identify and subsequently rectify this.
This is one of Best’s regrets from 2019 – not highlighting this issue earlier.
“I think that that is one of my regrets. We had a fairly frank discussion after the England game in the summer, but really that discussion should have been had either before the Six Nations started, a bit of a ‘right, what can we do to be better?’ Rather than ‘Let’s just make sure we keep doing what we are doing’.
“Or certainly after the England game or in those mini camps or something. And look, that’s something that I feel responsible for. We talk a lot about this leadership group, and there is a lot of great leaders in it, and I do think we did a lot of good things, but I just don’t think that we picked up the warning signs quick enough.”
Best hopes that the current leadership group will learn from the experience and apply those lessons in 2020 and beyond.
Those lessons in highlighting problems also apply to how they are communicated, and in the case of 2019, questions over Schmidt, despite the immense level of trust the players had in their head coach, needed to happen more.
“Unfortunately for me, it is too late, but you know that leadership group is going to learn from that and go if they feel anything, that [while] you have to have trust in your coach, but also with that trust come the ability to go ‘You know what? We feel this isn’t right,’ and then have a conversation about it.
“Whereas we probably had so much trust in Joe that there was almost a feeling of ‘Well, if he says it’s right, it’s right’, without even questioning it. And a lot of the time you’ll question it, Joe will tell you why and you’ll go ‘Well that makes sense’, because he is class.”
With regards to specifics, naturally, Best was hesitant but looking back, he revealed that the players should have had more control at the end of a match week and in particular, the period between the Captain’s Run and the game.
“I think the easiest thing that we could have done as a player group was step into the latter part of the week and actually have been a bit more organised and been a bit more consistent with that. I think after the England game we sort of said ‘Look, we need room [from] the Captain’s Run into the start of the game to lead. You’ve given us all the tools to lead from Sunday to Thursday, but allow us to do it.’
“Then be planned and say ‘This is the Captain’s Run and this is what it looks like’. I think we did that for a bit and then probably just went ‘Right, we’re rolling again’, and maybe just let that slip a little bit. And Joe senses that, and goes ‘Well my biggest thing is to make sure we’re prepared and I don’t think we’re prepared enough.’
“Whether he is right or wrong, he has to go by his gut, and then he would step back into that space again and it would become another challenge for that area. I think we should have been better in that area and I should have been better in that area, and should have been better to go ‘Listen, Joe, it’s under control, don’t worry about it.’ ”
Of course, that’s all in hindsight and that won’t change the record books which will once again state that Ireland failed to progress past the quarter-final stage of the World Cup.
It’s time to look to the future and the new man at the helm, Andy Farrell.
Best believes that Farrell will delegate more in comparison to Schmidt, allowing his coaches to dictate things to a great degree.
“I think they are similar enough in that they expect a lot of you. I think Andy will be, with the way I believe the structure is going with the appointments they’ve had, is that Andy is going to sit over it a little bit more and let people run, whereas Joe was very much, attack was his baby and that was it.
“And I think when you get that, and it’s not to say one way or the other is right, but with Andy’s approach you sort of get somebody that is focused in on it, but you also get somebody who looks at the bigger picture and is able to go ‘you know what, this game is changing and we’re not changing with it’.”
Farrell’s personality is also something which Best praises as he reveals the Englishman likes to poke fun at the players for sponsorship videos which they have done in the past – a tactic often used at the beginning of review meetings so to take any potential tension out of the room.
“He just starts off with videos. He used to go through social media and pick out ads that people did. He pulled out one from Rob Kearney with Newbridge from I don’t know how long ago, and the other one was he loved John Cooney’s trick-shot Tuesday with a car company.
“He would almost do a commentary over the top of it, and he just has a way, he’s an incredibly funny person, sometimes without even meaning to be. You’d be sitting there at the start of a meeting and you would know that he is leading into something that he has a clip that he can’t wait to show you, and you’re just thinking ‘please not one of my ads’.
“Because no matter how good you think the ad is he will make it look [stupid], everyone will be laughing, and you’re left thinking ‘I knew that would come back to bite me’.”
Rugby player Rory Best is an ambassador for Specsavers Audiologists’ Grandparent of the Year 2019 Award, celebrating the extraordinary contribution that grandparents make to the lives of grandchildren and the community.
Rory, together with his father John Best, launched this year’s award that looks for Ireland’s most exceptional grandparent. With the search now open, Rory and his father are encouraging grandchildren across the country to start nominating.
Grandchildren of all ages can nominate their grandparents by filling out an entry form in Specsavers’ stores nationwide or online at www.specsavers.ie/hearing/grandparent. The closing date for entries is Friday, 3 January and the four regional finalists will be chosen by a judging panel before Ireland’s Grandparent of the Year is announced in mid-January.