Ven­er­a­ble warhorse at his best in role of front­line leader

Ire­land cap­tain Best knows South Africa will be a test of his com­mand

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS - JOHNNY WATTERSON

Some­times it seems Rory Best is all too fun­da­men­tally steeped in ru­ral de­cency to be play­ing hard­ball with the me­dia. Alone be­hind the large desk in the Aviva in­ter­view room, an empty sta­dium above af­ter the cap­tain’s run and all the phys­i­cal work com­plete, on the day be­fore Ire­land face South Africa, it feels the Ir­ish cap­tain should be mas­saged, not keel­hauled over his age.

Best has grown com­fort­ably into that im­age of a ven­er­a­ble warhorse, an im­mov­able ob­ject in the Ir­ish fron­trow and al­ways, at least in his pub­lic ut­ter­ances, a font of straight-talk­ing Poyntz­pass sense. He will take to the pitch against South Africa with just 80 min­utes’ rugby in his legs, a lit­tle light, he thinks, but be­cause the bulk of them came against Le­in­ster, they may be worth more to him than that.

But as rugby ca­reers re­volve around four-yearly cy­cles, the 35-year-old, still find­ing the cap­tain’s role agree­able, faces in­sin­u­a­tions of the bearded man with a scythe and hour­glass. Thoughts turn to a Tokyo cap­tain for the 2019 World Cup.

“I un­der­stand why peo­ple want to talk about my age. It’s not re­ally some­thing I’m in­ter­ested in,” he says. “Joe asked me to cap­tain the side again for this sea­son and I’m very happy to do it. Un­til I feel that my body starts to let me down . . . The ham­string in­jury can hap­pen to any­one at any time. For me, when Joe asked me, that was it – dead and buried. So I sup­pose that’s some­thing for the end of sea­son.”

Vote of con­fi­dence

It is not an ideal con­ver­sa­tion for Best to have on the eve of a match that is ex­pected to test the char­ac­ter of the Ir­ish team. But he un­der­stands Sch­midt pos­ing the ques­tion to him to the back­drop of Johnny Sex­ton, Pe­ter O’Ma­hony and Seán O’Brien was a vote of con­fi­dence in his hon­est, di­rect lead­er­ship. Sch­midt does not come with soft edges in mak­ing de­ci­sions that go to the heart of team mat­ters. Oner­ous yes, but the cap­taincy is no bur­den to Best.

“It only be­comes a bur­den when you’re look­ing around for peo­ple to share the load with you, share the bur­den,” he says. “When you look through the spine of this team, you’ve guys who are grow­ing into be­ing lead­ers. Tadhg Fur­long, Iain Hen­der­son, Pete, Johnny, CJ, Seánie, Conor. Look at that spine in the mid­dle of your team and all have cap­tained at dif­fer­ent lev­els.”

The words of Best are sim­i­lar to those of Spring­bok cen­tre Jesse Kriel and coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee. Kriel on Thurs­day spoke of lead­ing play­ers, blind­side Siya Kolosi, num­ber eight Fran­cois Louw and their cap­tain Eben Etze­beth, all do­ers and thinkers on the pitch.

Kriel de­scribed the new team cul­ture South Africa were build­ing, with play­ers handed the free­dom of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and a new regime of con­di­tion­ing. There was also grit in their oint­ment. Ire­land is ranked four in the world, with South Africa a rung be­low. It is not in Spring­bok na­ture to be com­fort­able with that con­struct of rugby world or­der.

“I think it’s a good South Africa team. They’ve come a long way from the team we played a year ago last June,” says Best. “If you think of vin­tage South Africa teams and these big for­wards get­ting them across the gain line and a big-kick­ing out-half . . . These guys have those for­wards and an out­half that can kick but

When you look through the spine of this team, you’ve guys who are grow­ing into be­ing lead­ers

they have a lot more as well. The depth they play at and the off­loads . . . that makes them a real hand­ful.”

Mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion

There is a sus­pi­cion of “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he” in a week that has been less a war of words than a stew of mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion be­tween the sides, more a bro­mance than a face-off. But cut­ting to the chase, his cap­taincy and lead­er­ship, his per­for­mance and his nerve will be chal­lenged by the ’Boks.

“You’ve got to get your own game right,” he says. “Sec­ondly, it is im­por­tant that you have an idea as to how the week is shaped up. It is im­por­tant that you have a plan as to how you are go­ing to lead. Ob­vi­ously, you have to have the abil­ity to go to where you feel you need to go to.”

Best knows where he needs to go, as Paul O’Connell did be­fore him. “It’s a cliche and you’re prob­a­bly bored hear­ing it, it’s about the game to­mor­row,” he says.

Tokyo is a moot point. It can wait. The ’Boks will do for now.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: INPHO

Rory Best leads his play­ers dur­ing yes­ter­day’s cap­tain’s run at the Aviva Sta­dium, Dublin.

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