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28th Aug 2019

Is it too early to throw Best out with the bath water?

Jack O'Toole

World Cup warm-up game or not, warm weather, mild weather or cold weather training camp, heavy loading, pre-loading or simply stuck on game loading… if you concede 57 points to England there’s going to be major questions asked.

Ireland were pummeled by England last weekend in their second World Cup warm-up game and missed 37 tackles, conceded eight and lost six line-outs. They were just some of the headline statistics from the sobering defeat and inevitably there has to be someone to blame.

Queue Rory Best. The Ireland captain did not play great on Saturday and the knives are being sharpened as the public get ready to try and call an end to his international career as a starter.

One of the most read pieces on The Irish Times website over the weekend was Gavin Cummiskey’s piece titled Dark clouds gather as Ireland captain Rory Best runs out of road. 

TodayFm host Matt Cooper questioned Best’s place in the team.

Former Ireland hooker and captain Keith Wood said Best will now be under serious pressure to keep his place in the side.

Best is 37-years-old and will retire from professional rugby at the end of this year’s Rugby World Cup. He has traveled on two Lions tours, has won two Grand Slams and is the fourth most successful Irish captain of all-time, in terms of win percentage, trailing only 1948 Grand Slam-winning captain Karl Mullen (73 per cent), Ernie Crawford (70 per cent) and  Tom Kiernan (67 per cent).

Best’s captaincy record stands like this: 33 matches, 21 victories, 11 defeats, one draw. He played in all 51 of Ireland’s matches in the Six Nations from February 4th, 2007 until the second game of the 2017 tournament when he missed the win over Italy in Rome through injury. He captained Ireland to victory over New Zealand in 2016, a Grand Slam in 2018 and the first win over New Zealand on home soil in November of last year.

But sport, as ever, is a what have you done for me lately business and lately Ireland have struggled. Best’s record at international level is right up there with the very best the country has ever produced but losses to England and Wales in the Six Nations and a record defeat to the Red Rose at the weekend has raised serious questions about this Ireland team before next month’s Rugby World Cup.

One of the big questions this week has been Best’s role as captain, with Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton both more than viable alternatives for that role, but Ireland coach Joe Schmidt isn’t ready to change leaders just yet.

Schmidt seems content, at least for the moment, to stick with Best and here’s what he has got out of his skipper over the last five starts. 2.8 runs per game for 4.4 metres, six tackles made per game and 1.4 missed tackles per game.

It’s not the greatest return for an Irish team that had the most carries of any team during the Six Nations but then there’s also a lot of mouths to feed with one ball between James Ryan, CJ Stander, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Josh van der Flier.

Best’s saving grace is that Ireland’s line-out is at an 88% this year and the 60% clip that Ireland threw at the weekend seems like a clear aberration. If the line-out is working, if he’s making his tackles and leading the team around then it’s very much not broke, don’t fix it territory for Best and Schmidt.

However, Leinster’s Sean Cronin had a stellar season with the province last term and proved to be a try scoring machine with the PRO14 champions.

Cronin would give Ireland more dynamism in attack but his problem is that he’s never truly been backed by Schmidt, or any Irish coach for that matter.

The 32-year-old has won 69 caps for Ireland but has started just 10 games for Ireland and started only one Six Nations match; the 26-16 win over Italy this year where Ireland won just 75% of their line-outs.

The irony is that Cronin has thrived as a starter on Leinster teams that have won PRO14 titles and Champions Cups. Joe Schmidt famously left him off last summer’s tour of Australia while the two other alternatives at the position, Niall Scannell and Rob Herring, have just 23 caps between them.

Scannell was selected in two Six Nations matches this year so it’s reasonable to think that he’ll be involved this Saturday against Wales but Schmidt is left with a tough choice.

Change captains a month before the World Cup starts, go to one hooker that you’ve started just once before in the Six Nations or two others that both have less than 20 caps.

Ireland, maybe more than any other country with the likes of James Ryan, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale, have shown that international experience may be a little overrated but Best has been Schmidt’s guy ever since he took the job.

The New Zealander has developed a reputation for being ruthless but dropping his skipper a month before the World Cup would be a massive change of tack.

Warren Gatland famously dropped Sam Warburton as his captain for the first Test of a Lions series, before restoring him as skipper for the following two Tests, so stranger things have happened, but Best has survived this far and if he can get Ireland’s line-out back on track it’ll be hard to see him watching on from the sidelines next month.

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