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Alan Quinlan: Inspirational Rory Best led Ireland by example like O'Driscoll and O'Connell


Deserved applause: Rory Best after his inspirational display
Deserved applause: Rory Best after his inspirational display
Peter O'Mahony

By Alan Quinlan

It is staggering to think that Rory Best made his Ireland debut 14 years ago and, further still, that 121 caps later he remains able to churn out 80 minutes of Test rugby.

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The pressure has been on him for quite some time but the Ulster hooker doesn't trade in self-doubt or panic. He never has.

Yesterday, Joe Schmidt couldn't have asked for much more from his captain.

Twelve from 12 in the lineout, scoring a try which took great dexterity, a try assist for Tadhg Furlong, nine tackles from nine attempts and he led a pack that excelled in the scrum and maul.

It was a performance of real leadership, one that - with Peter O'Mahony off the field for most of the game and Johnny Sexton not operating at full throttle - stood out to the enthralled Yokohama crowd.

Best is an understated leader, a trait that is sometimes seen as a negative from the outside looking in.

Yesterday, though, at 37 years of age, he led by example, in the same vein that Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell used to do so regularly in green.

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The Ulster axis with Iain Henderson ran the lineout brilliantly, although there is room to improve in that department as the 100 percent set-piece figure included a couple of loose efforts that were well mopped up.

I only played two Test matches with Best - a 2007 World Cup warm-up loss to Scotland and the 22-3 Croke Park defeat to the All Blacks in 2008 - but we had plenty of run-ins over the years in training camps and, of course, in fiery interprovincial clashes.

I know it's easy to say after the fact but I could sense it at the press conference here on Friday that Best was in a good place; sporting his trademark wry smile, he was clearly confident.

I hadn't seen him look so comfortable for quite some time.

It was an emotional day for Best too, knowing that his storied international career was officially in the home straight, but he channelled that sentiment superbly from the off; making tackles, linking play and bringing early energy to the game when making a good start which was so imperative.

Ireland needed to bully Scotland, and they did just that.

Gregor Townsend's side were poor, but a lot of that was down to the pressure they were put under by an aggressive Irish defence.

It had been well-flagged this week in these pages that Ireland should have the measure of Scotland in the pack, particularly in the front five, and they didn't disappoint.

Every one of them contributed individually, but I believe that it was as a collective that they were most impressive.

Just as Best helped Furlong burrow over for Ireland's third try, O'Mahony played a similar support role for the skipper's effort and ditto Cian Healy for James Ryan, whose force-of-will score was reminiscent of O'Driscoll's point-blank match-winners en route to the 2009 Grand Slam.

Best is no stranger to criticism and I must admit I wasn't certain a year ago that he should be the first-choice hooker in Japan.

He shipped a lot of the criticism, unfairly weighted in my mind, after the warm-up defeat to England. The hooker didn't have a good game but few of the match-day 23 left Twickenham that evening with much credit.

He obviously would have tried to block out the negativity, but some of it eventually breaches your bubble.

The talk of Ireland's front-five advantage pre-game generally centred around the strengths of the players with numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 on their backs, but Best proved again yesterday, as he did when introduced in the warm-up win against Wales at the end of last month, that he still offers a lot more than leadership and solid scrummaging.

It was no mean feat playing in those conditions - you could feel the weight of the humidity in the commentary box, never mind on the field - so to do that at 37 shows what great condition he is in, how well he has prepared and, equally, how well he has been managed.

It was a showing that was clearly appreciated by his team-mates too.

I saw afterwards that Tadhg Furlong couldn't help himself in his post-match interview, quipping: "Old man Best doing the 80, it is testament to him at 55 years of age."

Jibes like that indicate the squad are united and in a good place.

Best will probably be desperate to get back out there from the start against Japan and if I was in Schmidt's shoes I would be keeping the core of the team intact.

You need to show the hosts respect and keep your own momentum building.

Remember, too, that one brilliant performance by Ireland (and Best) doesn't guarantee that they can produce seven of them on the spin.

But yesterday's win will have brought a great sense of relief to the camp and added confidence at a vital time.

There were fears of a 2007 repeat after a disappointing 2019 pre-World Cup.

Thankfully, we can all now put them to bed because yesterday's effort was a lot more like the all-conquering Ireland of 2018. Onwards and upwards.

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