Irish won't repeat silly Six Nations mistakes, vows Rory Best
Rory Best says his Ireland team need to be better than their historic 2018 campaign if they are to achieve their goals at the World Cup in Japan.
The captain, who will retire after the tournament concludes this autumn, is bullish about the team's prospects as he kicks off his final campaign against England in Twickenham today.
Six Nations defeats to today's opposition and Wales have punctured the optimism around Joe Schmidt's side, but the Ulsterman is bullish about their ability to hit new heights.
Despite that recent run of form, Ireland can go top of the world rankings for the first time with a win at Twickenham today and Best is confident his men can get back to their best.
"It feels like the start of the 2019-20 season," he said. "We can't keep going back, 'We need to be like 2018'. We need to be better.
"We tried to be better in the Six Nations. We got a lot of things wrong along the way but we've got to make sure we're better than we were then.
"That's ultimately always the goal, to try to be better. There is a hunger to be better.
"You look back in hindsight and maybe we got the preparation wrong when we were in Portugal at the end of January.
"It was very much about getting ourselves ready. I think the coaches were pushing us but as players we felt a bit tired, of saying, 'We know we're good so it will just be a case of getting it right next game', leading into the game.
"The way England came at us, we got caught a little bit short in our preparation which, again, is very unlike us.
"There is a lot of stuff which Joe has drilled into us that are the foundations of our game.
"Ultimately, you have to go back to that. Preparation was a key one and you guys would have heard that a lot over the years, that preparation was key.
"We kind of got that wrong in the Six Nations, we missed our little windows, we were neither on nor off the whole time.
"The great thing about this group is when we're on, we're on and when we have time to relax and be off and enjoy each other's company, we switch off and I think we got that mix a little bit wrong in the Six Nations in terms of we were sort of half-in, half-out.
"We're very confident in this group of players. Just look at how it's been so hard to narrow down.
"I'd say Joe was looking to come away with maybe fewer than 40 players but boys have trained well and put their hand up and made it difficult for him.
"That's the mark of a great side, it's not the over-reliance on one or two players. It's not that long ago, 12 months ago, we were being talked about as the best Irish team there ever was and one of the best teams in the world.
"A few other teams have come to the party now, the way Wales and England have been over the past 12 months. That's fine, I suppose we'll know better on Saturday where we are. But in terms of the attitude we've shown I think we're in a really good place but ultimately a lot of teams before they get players on the pitch for a first time, everyone feels they're in a good spot but you'll not know until the final whistle on Saturday where exactly you are."
Leinster's Ross Byrne makes his first Ireland start at Twickenham today and, having been on the receiving end of the out-half's boot when Ulster lost their Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium in March, Best believes he and back-up Jack Carty have what it takes to thrive.
"You see Ross stepping in for Leinster and he's fairly unflappable," he said. "Unfortunately, from an Ulster point of view, we saw that in the quarter-final.
"That's the way he trains. He's not just unflappable, he's got answers; he sees things, whenever we come into the huddle he's talking about, if it didn't work, why it didn't work.
"It's not just a case of, 'We need to do it better' it's, 'We need to do it better by doing this' which is a good trait and you see the way Jack runs Connacht.
"For the likes of Johnny (Sexton), he's training really, really well at the minute. He's flying. We were down doing a wee bit on Wednesday, a day off, and he was training. He looks in really good condition.
"You've seen time and time again Johnny has come back into a side in a big game having played no rugby for a long time and being the best player on the pitch.
"We know he can do that because of how hard he works and obviously Joey (Carbery) is talented. But the two boys are the two fit boys at the minute and they're getting their opportunity.
"It's a responsibility of the people around Ross to make sure that he gets as easy a ride as possible, that he gets to flourish and is able to express himself."
In order to give Byrne a strong platform, Best and his forwards must match or better an English pack that bullied them in Dublin in February.
"There's no point in hiding from the fact that they came to Dublin and right from the first exchanges they dominated areas where we take a lot of pride in how good we are," he said. "We got bullied a little bit. That's probably the big area for us to be better.
"The circumstances will be slightly different; a World Cup warm-up versus the first game of the Six Nations.
"For us, it's about making sure those opening exchanges don't get away from us as they did in two Six Nations games.
"When they got away from us, the result ended up getting away from us as well."
Best celebrated his 37th birthday with the squad at former Leinster player Eoin O'Malley's bar, 'The Cheeky Pup', in Portugal last week but he says he is feeling fit and fresh ahead of the final chapter of his career.
"One of my challenges before the pre-season was to get through everything, to show I was still physically capable of being here and I came through everything," he said.
"It's like everything, you can do all the running and everything but until you have a white jersey coming at you and not letting you through, that's when you see where you're at.
"But I feel good. I struggled a bit at the end of last season just with 'last home', 'last this', 'last the other' and whatever and it's not me, I don't like to be emotionally up and down. I like to be reasonably consistent with the preparation, the emotion around the game. That's something I'm focusing on now.
"It's my opportunity on Saturday to show that I want to be there, that I'm capable of being there. Whenever the final whistle comes in the final game, whenever that might be, I'll worry about that then."