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Jonathan Bradley: Farewell Rory Best - Ireland's most successful captain will go down as a true Ulster great

 

Family occasion: Rory Best leaves the Tokyo stage with his children Ben, Penny and Richie (left)
Family occasion: Rory Best leaves the Tokyo stage with his children Ben, Penny and Richie (left)
Rory Best
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Things came full circle on a day when Rory Best had no interest in such symmetry.

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Having began his Test career all the way back in 2005 against the All Blacks, the Ireland skipper, Ulster Rugby's most significant figure in a generation, saw his career come to a close against the same unforgiving hand.

The now former stalwart transformed himself over the past 14 years, over the same period Irish rugby did too. The final chapter though will have felt all too familiar.

That his 121st through 124th caps offered further evidence that, even at 37-years-old, he remains the nation's best hooker will have offered little solace. Likely more than any other given its personal significance, Saturday's thumping and the preceding loss to Japan will linger on and on in the mind.

He was hailed in the aftermath by the likes of Steve Hansen and Kieran Read, cheered from the field by the large Irish contingent and given a guard of honour by his team-mates.

But, just as his final farewell to Ulster, it was not to be a fitting red letter day. By the time he was replaced by Niall Scannell in the second-half, the game was long since gone, Ireland's World Cup and his rugby career finished.

"Tired, sore, upset," he said when asked for his emotions in the Tokyo Stadium.

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"Right now you focus on just what's gone and we're incredibly disappointed. "We've got a lot of big characters in that changing room and it's not often that you get deadly silence.

"There were some of those big men in tears. That's what happens when everybody puts their heart and soul into something.

"You hope you'll get time to reflect on what's been an incredible few years for this team.

"It's been a little bit of a roller-coaster of emotion, pressure, everything. But what's been really good is the way this group has stuck together.

"We went into this game fully believing expecting to win - but it just didn't happen for us.

"I'm really upset with the thought I'll never pull on a green jersey again except to go and support."

Best addressed the group in the changing room after, the group surely having wished to see him, and indeed Joe Schmidt, sent off into the sunset on a note not so laced with despondency.

For all the big days he's enjoyed in that green jersey, World Cups have been bittersweet experiences.

This was his fourth - a feat matched only by Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll - and, given the expectation and long lead-in. likely the most galling of the lot.

When some Irish team in the future finally breaks that quarter-final hoodoo, they will do so having had to shrug off an immense weight of history.

"Everyone talks about the pressure that's on the All Blacks before quarter-finals but when you haven't won one and you feel you have a great coaching set-up and great group of players then maybe you put too much pressure on," Best said.

"Maybe we have been looking at this for too long and been so focused on it that we forgot to win some of the little battles along the way over the last 12 months.

"We wanted to set a bar than no Irish team has met before. We've done that numerous times over the six and half years with Joe.

"It was an onus on us to win a quarter-final because then it becomes a habit.

"With Joe, he helped take away a bit of the fear factor that the All Blacks held in the last three Tests. But when you do that they see you coming a lot more and when you get the best team in the world fully prepared and fully focused on you it becomes that little bit more difficult."

The farm and the family await, retirement arriving that little bit earlier than planned.

The All Blacks ensured neither the start nor finish saw history made, in between though it was certainly something to savour. Ireland's most successful captain, he goes down as one of Ulster's true greats.

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