Could Rory Best be Ireland's greatest centurion?
John Hayes, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell... Rory Best.
The Ulster man is set to join an exclusive club when he makes his 100th appearance for Ireland against Australia.
We are MASSIVE fans of Best here at SportsJOE, as are Irish celebs Niall Horan and Rory McIlroy. The softly spoken man from Poyntzpass took up the captaincy from Paul O'Connell after the disappointing 2015 World Cup.
As fan clubs go, this ain't bad https://t.co/mo4xJVqZ0i
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Not many players would have had the mental toughness and desire to lead after Paul O'Connell's international career ended. To say the least, the towering Limerick man was a tough act to follow.
Following O'Connell's retirement, there were many issues surrounding the Ireland squad.
- They had just been eliminated from the quarter-final stage of the World Cup (yet again)
- Many high-profile Irish international players were rumoured to be moving abroad
- Joe Schmidt and his management were beginning to receive their first real bit of criticism
- The wider squad was an ageing
- The strength-in-depth of the squad was beginning to be exposed.
Not exactly the best circumstances for a new captain to enter the fray.
However, Best knew that this was an incredibly important time for the team and the short to medium-term future of Irish rugby. Unselfishly, he stood up and put his name into the hat for contention.
There would have been elements of doubt and fear for Best surrounding his candidacy for the captaincy. But according to Best, fear is good. It drives you to places you didn't think you can go.
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Best has used this fear to consistently push his performances, both playing-wise and leadership-wise, to another level over the past six months.
This is something which isn't lost on Irish defence coach, Andy Farrell. He says:
“I think Rory is outstanding. I can actually say I think he's playing better than ever, because I've seen it over the last six months."
It's not just his playing ability which has improved over time, but his leadership qualities as well. Farrell notes:
“I was on tour in South Africa I was very impressed with his leadership then. And now we've come to the autumn series and it's gone up another level."
This year has seen an emergence of new Irish talent with the likes of Garry Ringrose, Paddy Jackson and Josh van der Flier all cementing their status as international Test quality players.
A large slice of the credit has to go to Best. There is no doubt that his leadership qualities and approach-ability have helped nurture and facilitate the confidence that these young Irish players have shown over the last few weeks and months.
Best, unsurprisingly, deflects any of the praise to young players themselves and even states that the enthusiasm shown by the new generation are encouraging some of the older heads to up their game.
“We have Jacko and Garry Ringrose coming in there; they're young, they're exciting players. Ringer last week was very, very good for us. There'll be no fears of him, and Josh on the bench, they're real students of the game. You can't get them out of the video room, they just want to learn and improve all the time. And that's infectious, even for the boys who've been around a long time."
No doubt the plaudits have been coming in from all angles as Best is inching ever closer to reaching the 100-cap milestone. Arguably the most important snippet of that praise comes from head coach Schmidt.
Schmidt spoke at length, this week, in Carton House about his captain. One point that particularly stood out was how early Schmidt ear-marked Best for a potential captaincy role.
"I always saw Besty as a really difficult guy to get on top of when I was coaching Leinster. We always saw him as the guy who, if he dropped his head, you knew you were on top of Ulster."
What better compliment can you get? To be singled out by one of the greatest tactical coaches in the game, knowing that if your performance drops, then so does that of your teammates.
But of course, as we know, that doesn't happen with Best. As Schmidt confirmed:
"It just didn't happen."
Schmidt also alluded to the fact that Best might not be a player that the casual rugby fan will notice. Unlike his previous 100-cap colleagues, Best may not have the colossal lineout takes, the goal-kicking feats, or the prolific try-scoring form. However, what he does have is a work-rate around the pitch which is equally as important. Schmidt states:
"People don't notice, but his clean-out numbers and his carries when there's nowhere to go. There's slow ball, a brick wall and Besty will put his hand up and he'll still get his feet under and give a bit of a nudge forward so you can start constructing something."
How often over the past 12 months have we seen Best carry a ball when we are struggling to make any ground after a number of phases?
He does this all the time.
He's likely to get smashed, it's definitely going to hurt, but he uses his subtle footwork to get regain that forward momentum. An area of the game which cannot be understated.
His sheer determination and fight for the cause could not be more exemplified by the infamous game against New Zealand in the Aviva Stadium in 2013.
Best breaks his arm. Best carries on.
As former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan states, he doesn't even take a second off. He is straight back into the pillar position at the side of the ruck, waiting for another All Black carry.
Best will receive his 100th cap on Saturday but he will try deflect most of the praise that comes his way.
As the Irish fans make their appreciation known when Best is called to the sideline, spare a thought.
Best has played a pivotal role in the growth of the team that you see before you. He, no doubt, adds further difficulty to the following question...
Who is Ireland's greatest rugby centurion?