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Ireland v Italy: Six Nations milestone isn't main focus for Rory Best

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 12/03/2016

In the thick of it: Rory Best (centre) and his Ireland team-mates work on their scrum ahead of the clash against Italy
In the thick of it: Rory Best (centre) and his Ireland team-mates work on their scrum ahead of the clash against Italy

Whenever a player is mentioned in the same breath as Ulster legends Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson, it's safe to assume they're doing something right but Rory Best has little interest in personal accolades this afternoon.

When the Ireland skipper leads the side out against Italy (1.30pm, Aviva Stadium) in the fourth game of a stuttering Six Nations campaign, he will become the third man from his province to make 50 appearances in the championship - the aforementioned heroes of the 1960s and 70s the only previous pair - but the 33-year-old is instead firmly focused on securing a first victory since being appointed captain earlier this year.

Having drawn with Wales before suffering defeats at the hands of France and England, Joe Schmidt's men have no chance of a third consecutive title but the Poyntzpass man still wants to see significant improvement.

"It's a nice achievement for me personally," reflected the hooker, who may yet win his 100th cap in 2016. "It doesn't seem that long ago since the first and 50 is a great milestone but you look at these when you retire; at the minute it's about a very important game against Italy and looking to get our first win.

"(We must) keep improving the performance and really be a lot better in a few areas that we've prided ourselves on in the last number of years.

"When you set high standards you expect everyone to come up to them and you expect as a team to be there.

"We've been there in bits and pieces in various games but as a complete entity and a complete 80 minute performance we've been nowhere near the standards we expect.

"There's a few areas we're especially not happy with but we'll get them tightened up and that'll make a difference."

Best has placed the blame for their meek title defence with the players, calling Schmidt's coaching ticket one of the best he has ever worked under, and is demanding the "real Ireland" show themselves for the visit of the Azzurri and the concluding round of the championship against Scotland next weekend.

"As a player group we don't feel we need to win the game to assert the authority there," he said when asked what a win would mean for the coaching staff. "When you're in this environment you realise how well prepared we are.

"I've been around a few coaching set-ups with Ulster and Ireland and this is one of the best.

"Everyone picks stuff apart with results, but we know the preparation we're getting and we know that at times as players we haven't delivered on promises that we make to each other.

"So from that point of view a result would go a long way to helping everyone in terms of really bedding us into international rugby.

"But in terms of the coaching ticket, it's always nice to get a win and that's ultimately what we're here to do.

"Call it the real Ireland, call it whatever you want, but they are the standards we expect to live by and play by, and we haven't reached them. That's where we hope to get to."

With Italy having beaten Ireland in Dublin on only one previous occasion - in 1997 - Best is sure that Jacques Brunel's men will look at their out-of-form hosts and see the chance for a sizeable upset.

"They will be thinking this is their big opportunity to get a scalp, and that in itself produces extra pressure on us," said Best. "But I'm very sure the boys will stand up.

"There has been a bit of a steep learning curve for some players. People are starting to get the idea of what the difference of this group has been in the past."

Ireland suffered a late blow with the news that Cian Healy will not be part of today's proceedings after suffering a hamstring strain.

Assistant coach Simon Easterby said: "We felt we weren't prepared to risk that, given Cian's history with that injury, in that his hamstring has been affected before. It's frustrating, but Cian is old enough and mature enough to understand that it's part of the game.

"He has to get himself right and the most important thing is that we and he are happy and clear on the reasons for that decision."

The absence of the 2013 British and Irish Lion could mean a Test debut for Connacht's Finlay Bealham.

Australian-born but Irish qualified thanks to his grandmother hailing from Enniskillen, Bealham played his first rugby in this part of the world for Belfast Harlequins before being offered a place in the Connacht sub-academy.

Having originally been called into the squad as a tight-head when Martin Moore went down with injury, he has been selected to cover the other side of the scrum ahead of the likes of his provincial team-mate Denis Buckley and Munster's James Cronin.

"He's slotted in well, he's been involved with the squad from the start," said Easterby. "This is his first opportunity to get a taste of Test rugby. He's another product of Connacht going really well this year."

Belfast Telegraph

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