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Rory Best: Ireland squad are in perfect mindset to make sure this World Cup holds no regrets

At a stretch: Rory Best (left) and Iain Henderson in Ireland training
At a stretch: Rory Best (left) and Iain Henderson in Ireland training
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It's an unlikely scenario given the gruelling nature of a seven-week World Cup campaign renders a pool stage rest an almost cast-iron certainty but, should Ireland make the final of the global showpiece in Japan this autumn and their skipper Rory Best plays in every game along the way, the soon-to-be 37-year-old would set a new appearance record for his country at the tournament.

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The mark is currently jointly held by fellow four-timers Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll but, when all is said and done come November 2 in Yokohama, it's the retiring Banbridge man who could well lay a claim to be the most well-versed of his compatriots in World Cup highs and lows.

His first exposure to the tournament came with the dismal failure of 2007, when a side that left these shores with talk of returning as champions failed to even make the knock-outs.

He went again four years later when Ireland put pre-tournament misgivings to one side by beating Australia in the pool, only to fall to Wales at the familiar hurdle of the quarter-final stage, and last time around was one of the few key members of Joe Schmidt's side still standing by the time they were ripped apart by Argentina in the last eight.

When it comes to his memories of tournaments past and what he will take with him to Japan next month, he exudes a hint of the Frank Sinatra. Just like old blue eyes, regrets, it seems, he's had a few.

"I'll carry those," he admitted of his past three World Cup trips. "Most of the questions about '07, '11 and '15, the learnings, the regrets, you could ask me in 40 years and I could give you the exact same answer because, when you're at this level, those stay with you forever.

"For me, I'll never get another opportunity (to play in a World Cup). Some boys might not get another opportunity, some are young enough and they will, but you never know. Someone like Jacob (Stockdale) could get through this then maybe in four years time he gets injured in a warm-up game. Hopefully that doesn't happen obviously, but you could miss another one. When you think you have plenty of time, you actually sometimes don't.

"So ultimately what I don't want this time around, I won't be here thankfully, but you don't want the boys to be doing press conferences during the Six Nations and going 'Yeah, the learnings from '19 are...'

"I think we need to stop learnings at World Cups now and go 'right, how do we throw our best performance?'

"If we throw the best that we have out there and it's not quite enough for whatever reason, at least you can go, 'you know what, that was the best of us, that wasn't us playing within ourselves, that wasn't us holding something back, that was the best of us and it wasn't quite good enough' or 'that was good enough to do what we wanted to do'."

Whether you think this squad will indeed return, if not victorious, then at least satisfied, largely will hinge on which team you believe will pitch up for that opening game against Scotland in Yokohama some six weeks from now.

Are Ireland the unbeaten juggernaut of 2018, Grand Slam winners and conquerors of the All Blacks, or the more pedestrian version that finished third in this year's Six Nations, losing to both England and Wales?

Everyone, surely, is agreed that performances such as their most recent outings will not be enough to overcome the likes of New Zealand or South Africa in a potential quarter-final. To finally break through the glass ceiling and reach the last four, Ireland must show they can recapture their verve of last year.

"People (are) saying we peaked in '18," Best admitted.

"You try to avoid it but you can't. People are saying we're this, we're that, we're predictable, whatever.

"But a lot of (the issues in the Six Nations) were uncharacteristic mistakes.

"Whenever you get into a good place like we were in '18, you kind of take for granted maybe some of the simple things. It sometimes takes a reality check, and finishing third to us was bitterly disappointing.

"So we've gone back to a little bit of those basics as well. We want to be a bit more expansive but actually the foundations of our game, we can't go away from those either.

"When the boys came in at the start of pre-season, everyone was as hungry as I've seen when a group of players come together.

"You always get a pocket who are hungry, a pocket ready to go and another pocket who are just coming in because it is at the start of pre-season and they have to be here.

"But by and large we have a group of players who want to prove that 2019 was the blip, not 2018."

Playing Scotland to start and then hosts Japan six days later poses something of a new proposition for Ireland at World Cups - their first ever front-loaded schedule.

And while Best, plus a number of Joe Schmidt's other frontline players, are set to be held in reserve when the side host Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon (2pm kick-off), the final three warm-up fixtures - England, then Wales twice after the squad spend next week training in Portugal - will be important if they are to, as he puts it, "explode" into the competition next month.

"I think probably the big one will be that first game against Scotland," he said.

"If we can get ourselves in the next four warm-up games into a position where we can explode into the tournament on the 22nd, I think that will speak volumes about the job the coaches have done and the job the leadership group have done.

"That is the big thing, just to make sure that we're in the best possible place to start."

Ireland Rugby captain Rory Best is the new brand ambassador for Flogas, the all-Ireland energy company, and was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at Carton House yesterday where the partnership was announced.

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