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Ireland won't be cotton wool failures this time, vows Rory Best

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Published 14/09/2015

World of opportunity: Rory Best believes Ireland are right to dream of winning the World Cup
World of opportunity: Rory Best believes Ireland are right to dream of winning the World Cup

There are three of them now, the ghosts of World Cups past. Paul O'Connell, Eoin Reddan and Rory Best will patrol the Irish squad this week, watching for familiar signs of complacency; delving into the darkest experience of their international careers to try and ensure history doesn't repeat itself.

World Cup 2007. Nobody wants to remember it, but we'd be fools to forget. It remains the anchor that keeps Ireland's expectations from getting away from themselves.

Eight years on from France, there are parallels that have more paranoid fans sweating - the men in green are being talked about as one of the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31, their Six Nations was excellent and the tournament is close to home, which guarantees extra scrutiny.

This year, after a patchy series of warm-up games - albeit nowhere near as bad as 2007 - Ireland are hoping to play their way into form against Canada and Romania, before stepping up in class against Italy and France.

Back then, Namibia and Georgia were the teams that the golden generation expected to use as a springboard for future success.

It didn't work out that way.

The waiting is almost over  

Best started both games against the minnows and, on the morning of the opener against the Africans in Bordeaux, he received a text from his then Ulster Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, that read: 'Even you should score against these boys!'

It summed up the mood. Ireland won 32-17, but it was heavy going and it set the tone for a disastrous month.

"Even something like that, it wasn't something that was apparent at the time but looking back maybe it was our attitude," he reflects.

"During that pre-season, it was all 'it will be fine when we get our best team out', and all of a sudden it wasn't fine when we got our best team out. We had nowhere to go.

"Before it, I was so excited and couldn't wait to go. Then, really, I couldn't wait to get out of the place.

"Everything we tried, nothing worked. We got a lot of pressure from home, the hotel we were at wasn't good and there was very little to do, no down-time, and we struggled. As much as we struggled off the pitch, we struggled on it too.

"Even when we started well in the Argentina game. . . with that team we had you'd expect us to be gone, but we didn't have the confidence, the belief and once Argentina started to scratch at the surface, we fell apart.

"You sort of went, 'this is a long time away from home for not a lot of reward'.

"And then it was almost the complete opposite in New Zealand four years ago."

Schmidt taking big gamble with his strategy, insists Kay  

You could understand if he was going around to the younger squad members this week reminding them of those games, but he is part of a core of players who played in 2011 and have a happier experience.

However, it all came a cropper at the quarter-finals and Best recalls a variation on the same theme.

"The quarter-final is one of the big regrets I have as an Irish player," he concedes.

"To have put ourselves in that position and to really underestimate Wales who had struggled going into that World Cup...

"It was almost a case that we had one eye on the semi-finals, on making history, and just didn't perform. Wales took their chances and just grew and grew as the game went on and we just faded away.

"Up to that game, that was a lot more of what I would have expected from a World Cup. It felt like the biggest tournament in the world, it felt like the pinnacle of your Irish career, and that's what we're hoping for this time around.

"A few of us have experience of both and there's a few more who were there four years ago and know what a World Cup is like; if you get your preparation right it can be great."

Best can see why people are drawing comparisons between today and eight years ago, but he believes that Joe Schmidt's side are better placed to avoid the pitfalls that group experienced and to deal with the expectation.

"In 2011, the time difference was such that we were going to bed when people were waking up and when the papers came out in the morning," he says.

"The Irish supporters are such that if you're performing and giving them something to get behind, they'll do it in their thousands. No-one wants you to do badly, but if you're not performing and you're expected to perform, that's when perceptions change quite quickly, and rightly so.

"In '07, it was all about the XV. Even in the preparation, it was all about the starting XV.

"In the warm-up game against Scotland and in the Argentina game in June before the World Cup, it was about making sure the XV were wrapped in cotton wool. Basically, we never got the cotton wool off.

"Joe isn't like that at all, he'll expect the so-called best player in the team to do the same as whoever is 31st in his teamsheet. That's just what he expects of you."

Getting ahead of yourself is no longer an option.

"Preparation is a lot better now and you have confidence that everyone can be called on, whether it's a big game or a so-called lesser game," Best continues.

"The big lesson from that is something that Joe is big on, that you look at every game as it comes. I'm sure the press are sick of hearing us say it, that we're not looking past this game or that. But we genuinely don't.

"Canada will be looking for an upset, they're thinking 'this is our opportunity to knock one of these off', to put their name in lights at the World Cup, and we need to make sure that our preparation is the same as it will be for Romania, the same for Italy and then France."

Ireland expects and Best doesn't see why the team shouldn't believe that they can achieve big things at this World Cup.

"Ever since I've been involved with Ireland, we've shown that we can beat big teams," he explains.

"How many Six Nations were we involved in before Joe where we hadn't performed well, were sitting about third having lost twice and we're playing somebody in the last round and we wallop them with a massive performance?

"People were asking, 'why are they producing that now?'

"Ireland are capable of those performances; under Joe and with this squad, we're still capable of those performances, but we're not capable of those performances that drop way off.

"There's a certain level expected - over the last two years we've produced a level of consistency and ultimately if you look at the teams that do well at the World Cup, they don't just produce one big performance, they produce a series of good performances. Their worst game is generally pretty good, their best game no-one can live with them.

"That's where we need to be, that's what we have strived to do over two years and, if we can replicate that and get your slice of luck along the way, we'll be in the shake-up.

"This year there are five or six teams that all feel they've a chance of lifting it and I don't see why Ireland can't be one of those; but we have to produce that consistency that we have brought into our game that wasn't present over the last decade before Joe came in."

As an elder statesman of the squad with a family at home, the long time away presents its challenges for Best, although his wife Jodie and the kids will be over for some of the games.

Usually, he takes to the family farm in County Armagh to switch off during high-pressure international windows, and he has a little agricultural activity planned for the farming set in the squad for the week of the France game.

"It's a tough one, you're so close but you might as well be so far away. It's important to switch off," he says.

"I generally don't have any issues. When I'm at home I'd switch off by going out on to the farm; I'll obviously not be doing that now.

"I'd read a little bit, mainly box-sets. I've started Sons of Anarchy; I'm easy going, I'll watch anything.

"There's a guy who's a specialist in grassland in Wales who I do a bit of work with at home. He has a couple of farms he wants to show me and I said it to Sean O'Brien.

"He's going to take a spin around a couple of those on our day off when we're there for a wee while. Just to do something a bit different."

It's all about keeping the mind fresh and the body recovered for the bigger tasks at hand, while ensuring the focus doesn't drift beyond the task at hands.

Those are the lessons Best has learnt. He's back at the start-line once again, probably his last attempt. If Ireland learn, they'll have a good World Cup.

Belfast Telegraph

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