Croke Park victory a must, says Best
Rory Best last night urged his Irish colleagues to make home advantage count in their RBS 6 Nations Championship clash with Wales tomorrow.
The Welsh were the last visiting team to win at Croke Park, a 16-12 success en route to a Grand Slam, and the Ulster hooker has not forgotten it.
“We have to guard against that happening again,” said Best. “Them winning here will be a bit of a factor in that they won’t fear coming to Croke Park having won there before.”
Recent history in this fixture does not weigh in the hosts’ favour. Incredibly, victory in each of the past three Irish-Welsh battles — and six of their past 10 Championship meetings — has gone to the visiting side.
“If we’d beaten them last time that might have made a difference to their attitude in coming back, but I’d imagine they’ll be feeling pretty confident after what happened two years ago,” added Best.
Ireland, of course, won in Cardiff last year, relieving the Welsh of their Grand Slam in a touch-and-go nail-biter.
“Last year we beat them in a very close game that went right down to the wire,” added Best.
“There was nothing in that; it came down to a kick that, had it gone five yards further, would have meant they’d beaten us there as well.”
Tomorrow Best will complete a remarkable hat-trick of RBS 6 Nations Championship appearances by packing down against Wales and Lions hooker, Matthew Rees.
Remarkable because back in August when he underwent surgery to his damaged spine the prognosis was that he would be out for the entire season. Indeed, the fear in some quarters was that his career might be over.
“The last two months have been very good,” he says matter-of-factly. “Two months ago it was looking like I would be getting back very soon and the way things have turned out it has been quite a quick step up through the ranks.
“It has been good and it has been enjoyable. Everything has gone well; so far, so good, touch wood.”
Looking ahead to this weekend’s eagerly-anticipated joust with Wales he continues: “After two on the road it’s nice to be back home, starting a game at Croke Park.
“To be playing here for Ireland is fantastic because I suppose, if I’m being honest, it’s something I didn’t think I would be doing this season.”
His delight at having returned so far ahead of schedule and having performed so well is plain to be seen. There is an evident confidence about him, but that is true of the whole Irish team.
Best agrees. “Coming off the back of a good result at Twickenham, obviously we have a wee bit of confidence going into this one,” he says.
But he urges caution.
“Wales have had two close losses and a good win, so they’re going to be very dangerous,” he predicts. “Two years ago they came to Croke Park and beat us; I think they are the last side to have done that. So it’s something that they won’t have forgotten and we have to guard against happening again.
“Them winning here will be a bit of a factor, I suppose, in that they won’t fear coming to Croke Park having won there before.
“If we’d beaten them last time that might have made a difference to their attitude in coming back, but I’d imagine they’ll be feeling pretty confident after what happened two years ago.
“Last year we beat them in a very close game that went right down to the wire. There was nothing in that; it came down to a kick that, had it gone five yards further, would have meant they’d beaten us there as well.”
Stressing that the mood within the Irish camp has been good throughout the championship series, including even the Stade de France drubbing by the side now hotly tipped to take the Grand Slam, the Portadown College-educated hooker says: “Obviously we were disappointed after that game, but we bounced back.
“We showed a lot of character against England in finishing that game out. After Tommy’s try the last few minutes were just about character, about manning up and putting your body on the line to get a win for Ireland, which is what it’s all about.”
He expects another tight match tomorrow.
“We’ll prepare as we do for every international, we’ll give Wales the respect they deserve — they’re a quality side with quality players right through their team — and we’ll look at what we can do to stop them as well as trying to improve on what we did two weeks ago at Twickenham.
“Wales have very exciting backs. You just have to look along the line and you’ve got Lions the whole way across there. They have young, exciting players in the likes of Leigh Halfpenny and obviously Shane Williams is there, so they have dangerous guys who could cause a lot of problems.
“We’re going to have to be very tight defensively for we know they will test us as much as any side in the world.
“Their scrum has been going quite well. Last time out against France they did well in there so this is going to be another big test for us in that we struggled a bit two weeks ago.
“The whole Welsh pack, as a unit, is very good — good line-out, good scrum so we’re going to have to be on our game if we’re going to get the win.”
Questioned about Ireland’s much-criticised scrum the hooker replies: “We got a lot of criticism after the England game and a lot of that was very unfair, you know.
“We know ourselves it wasn’t great, but we also know it wasn’t as bad as some people were trying to make out.
“Some just seem to enjoy jumping on that bandwagon. The bottom line is that when we needed solid scrums to hold out on our line when they were coming at us, we won the ball.
“We’re a long way off where we want to end up, fair enough, but at the same time you can’t be overly-critical.
“It’s something that we have worked on more in the past two weeks than over the other Six Nations games.”