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I'm loving my job as leader of best ever Ireland side, says Rory

 

Going strong: Rory Best is ready for Six Nations battle
Going strong: Rory Best is ready for Six Nations battle
Joe Schmidt
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It's been 13-and-a-half years since Rory Best made his Ireland debut in a 45-7 loss to the then unbeatable All Blacks at the then Lansdowne Road.

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Plenty has changed since, and indeed not one other member of Eddie O'Sullivan's 22-man matchday squad from that day is still playing pro rugby.

Best became the 991st Irish international back in 2005, the latest debutant Sam Arnold the 1,108th last November. There have been plenty of great players in between but, for Best's money, the side has never had a better collection than the one that in the past year has won a Grand Slam, a series in Australia and beaten the All Blacks on home soil.

"I probably keep getting asked that because every year it looks like it's the best," he said ahead of leading the side out against England in this evening's Six Nations opener (4.45pm kick-off).

"But we keep finding ways to keep getting better, and I think that's probably why it's the best Irish team I've ever played in and hopefully in whatever, six to eight months' time, we keep saying that, and every year over the next while, Ireland teams will keep saying that.

"Whether it's the way people are being brought in or whether it's what they're being brought into in terms of the environment, but there's a real want to get better.

"And while you have that with the players, this Ireland team will keep getting better and that's where we want to be but at the minute, this is the best Ireland team I've played in... that's why we are where we are, because Joe (Schmidt) has made us into a team that can produce big performances time after time. It's what you need.

"Especially because it can be a vicious cycle - the better you are, the more targets are on your back and so the better you need to be the next time. That's where we are at the moment.

"It's a really exciting place, it is a challenge."

Injury permitting over the course of this Six Nations Championship, Best will become Ireland's second oldest player, passing marks established by both Mike Ross and Mike Gibson on their last caps.

Should he play in either round four or five of the campaign, only John Hayes will have pulled on a green jersey at a more advanced age.

Contracted until the end of the World Cup later this year, Best has yet to decide upon his future but there's no doubt that this is an environment in which he clearly enjoys playing.

"It's something that I get asked a lot and to be honest I'm contracted to the World Cup and it's the same answer," he said when asked whether this would be the last Six Nations of his career. "I'm really happy with how much I'm enjoying playing at the minute, even moving from Ulster to come down into here. This squad is a cracking squad to be a part of and I'll probably not make too many decisions until nearer the time.

"But I think that when you get to 30 or beyond every year is a bonus and every year you get to sit here as captain of this squad is a year when you can thank your lucky stars, because it is a really privileged position to be in with this great group of players.

"To be honest I'll just keep taking it game by game and judge by how much I'm enjoying and how much I feel I'm playing well.

"Ultimately, the pressure that comes from the way other people in your position are playing makes you drive on to try to be better and to try to improve your performance."

There is more certainty surrounding the coach, of course, with today representing the first Test since Joe Schmidt announced his intention to bring the curtain down on his trophy-laden spell in Irish rugby after the World Cup.

With that particular glass ceiling still some seven months down the track, Best says there has been no talk among the squad of this being the final Championship of Schmidt's glittering time at the helm.

"It is not something we are talking about," he said. "Obviously when he made his announcement, everyone was aware that he was going to be finishing up after the World Cup, but we may speak about it nearer then or near the end of the Six Nations.

"For us, it's more about us gelling again as a group, for while it is an established group, the provinces all do things a little bit differently. Even the set-up, scrums, the way you run lines, everything takes time to get things back together again.

"It'll be apparent as the Championship goes on, as we get closer to Joe's last game. I think every player that has pulled on a green jersey under Joe knows how special he has been to this squad, this country and this rugby team.

"Nearer the time we will talk more about it but our focus so far has been on the rugby. And there is no better thing to focus the mind than England."

Or indeed the opening game of this particular Championship.

On the three occasions Schmidt's Ireland have won their first-round match-up, they've gone on to win the title. When the starts have been slower, they have failed to take the challenge even into the final weekend.

With three away games to come in the next four after today, it is hard to over-state the importance of making a good start this evening.

For Best, the visit of England is always an occasion to relish.

"It's just special, they bring travelling support," he said. "Everyone gets their back up a little bit in the crowd when the English are here because they want to see a big performance.

"From our point of view, we don't focus on any of that. We focus on the side that we have to bring a big performance.

"When you get that familiarity about you, you get that intense rivalry.

"Especially over the last couple of years, you look at the two Championships we won (in 2014 and '15), early on in Joe's career; we won those on points difference from England.

"We beat them here, they beat us away. England, with the numbers they have, always will be and will always want to be one of the best teams in the world.

"With us, we've shown over the last number of years that we're right up there as well.

"So, that has created a massive rivalry."

The latest chapter in that rivalry is some way to start a Championship.

Bradley's Verdict: Ireland

During the era of Joe Schmidt as Ireland boss, a hallmark of his side's performances against England has been strong defensive efforts. The returns of No.8 Billy Vunipola and inside centre Manu Tuilagi will have given England a huge physical presence in this contest but if Ireland can cut down the visiting runners without giving them too much advantage at the gainline, they'll be confident of starting off the campaign with a win to set them up for another title charge.

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