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Rory Best: Retirement isn't on my mind yet - just beating New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup

New Zealand v Ireland, World Cup Quarter-Final, Tokyo, Tomorrow, 11.15am

Focused: Ireland skipper Rory Best in Tokyo yesterday
Focused: Ireland skipper Rory Best in Tokyo yesterday
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

From his hotel in Japan this week, Ireland captain Rory Best has been able to see the giant Cinderella castle in Tokyo's Disneyland each and every day, but it's not fairytale finishes he has on his mind, nor indeed any ending at all.

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The 37-year-old, the nation's most decorated captain having succeeded Paul O'Connell in 2016, could see the book close on his storied career this weekend should Joe Schmidt's side fall to New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-finals tomorrow (11.15am kick-off UK time).

Having began his long goodbye some time ago, encompassing his final Six Nations and season with Ulster, the Poyntzpass man stressed before departure that his impending retirement would be put to one side for the duration of the tournament and, even now, just one defeat or three wins from hanging up his boots, nothing has changed in that regard.

"It's not something that I've given any thought to," he said at Ireland's team announcement yesterday.

"Obviously we're planning and preparing and doing everything we can to make sure it isn't the last game but, look, whenever that last game comes, we're hopeful that it's two weeks away.

"When that final whistle goes we'll worry about it then.

"At the minute, I think it would be unfair and it wouldn't be reflective of the way the team's feeling if we had any thinking that this was going to be my last game.

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"I think with the way the squad are and how focused we are on this game, it's about winning, because obviously it's knockout rugby and that's the way the entire squad is feeling and I'm no different to that.

"Look, we'll see what happens and hopefully there's a bit longer. If there isn't, there isn't. We'll tackle that at full time."

Best made his debut against these same All Blacks in 2005 and, while he hopes it's not a case of book-ending his career with the ultimate challenge, a look at the teamsheets from that day is instructive when it comes to the hooker's remarkable longevity at this his fourth World Cup.

Former Ulster team-mates John Afoa and Neil Best made their Test debuts that same Dublin afternoon, Kiwi lock Jason Eaton too. The most recent Test outing from any of that trio that began their international journeys concurrently came eight years ago.

The only other player from that game also at this World Cup is Best's captain for the day, Simon Easterby, now his forwards coach.

Given the era his career has spanned, predating the establishment of full-time, professional Academy set-ups, it is no exaggeration to say that he is the last of a generation.

"I think we're really looking forward to this weekend and hopefully it's not something that comes full circle and starts and stops against the All Blacks," he said.

"I think if you look back 14 years, I'm substantially better prepared as an individual, even just the physique and my condition," he reflected.

"I suppose back then I was young and inexperienced and I didn't really realise what it took to get to the top. And I think I look after myself a lot better now, or certainly try to. Preparation is a lot better now.

Believe: Ireland celebrate their victory over New Zealand last year
Believe: Ireland celebrate their victory over New Zealand last year

"When you're that age you don't know any better. Joe (Schmidt) talked about how much the game has changed - then you kind of just turned up and thought you were a good player and that would be enough on the day. Now it's changed a lot. I think the preparation is the big thing which has changed for me. And as a team, that has been our big thing, that's what's changed.

"That's why we've been able to, by and large, achieve consistency over the last number of years. Because we understand what it takes to perform at the top level and how small those margins are.

"Whenever you don't get it quite right, ultimately, against the best teams you don't win."

In what is now a game of wafer-thin margins at the very top, New Zealand should certainly be the fresher of the sides having seen their final pool game against Italy cancelled due to last week's typhoon.

Best, though, does not believe his side are at a disadvantage and cites the increased competition for places as a driving factor behind their readiness to do battle once again with the back-to-back World champions.

"It's a short week, so you put a lot of pressure on players to do a bit more work away from the pitch," he said.

"It's hard to judge where that is until you play. I think we're in a reasonably good spot. We'll get the run-out (at captain's run) and it'll be a good gauge of where we are - look, ultimately it's all about Saturday.

"I don't feel at the minute that we're having to play catch-up - the feeling is that boys have put in a good bit of work.

"It's all about which team can turn up and implement their game plan best and deal with the pressure of quarter-final rugby, of knockout rugby.

"It's a very competitive bunch, and that probably starts with team selection. Everyone pushes hard to be in that squad, it's no longer that you kind of know what the 15 is going to be and the rest are there to make up the numbers. Every one of those 33 players believes they're good enough to start and they show it in training. You get people driving each other on.

"Whenever you get international players that are now used to winning things, at international level, at club level, it's a good mix."

Not one he's ready to leave behind just yet either.

How they line-up

Teams for World Cup quarter-final between Ireland and New Zealand in Tokyo (Saturday 11.45am)

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose, R Henshaw (both Leinster), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), T Furlong (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); P O'Mahony (Munster), J van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).

Replacements: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne (both Munster), A Porter (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), R Ruddock, L McGrath (both Leinster), J Carbery (Munster), J Larmour (Leinster).

New Zealand: B Barrett; S Reece, J Goodhue, A Lienert-Brown, G Bridge; R Mo'unga, A Smith; J Moody, C Taylor, N Laulala; B Retallick, S Whitelock; A Savea, S Cane, K Read (capt).

Replacements: D Coles, O Tuungafasi, A Ta'avao, S Barrett, M Todd, TJ Perenara, SB Williams, J Barrett.

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