'Then it crashes': Rory Best shines light into impact of Ireland's complacency and tension at Rugby World Cup
Death by detail. While even the head coach's recently published book left reasons for Ireland's October World Cup exit remaining thin on the ground, retired skipper Rory Best opened up yesterday on why he believes the nation continues to bump its head on the glass ceiling of a semi-final.
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With a loss to hosts Japan in the pool stages having set them on a crash course with the All Blacks in the last-eight, the frankly odd end to a glorious era of Irish rugby continues to raise a raft of unanswered questions, with Ulster legend Best the first to properly wade in and admit that selection, complacency and a failure of senior players to impose themselves on the eve-of-game preparations can all be cited as contributing factors to what would become Ireland's most comprehensive quarter-final loss.
Having began the campaign with a comprehensive win over Scotland, it seemed Joe Schmidt's men had righted a ship that was taking on water since their historic 2018 drew to a close but, with the benefit of hindsight, Best feels the seeds of disappointment had been sown long before their tournament ever got underway in Yokohama.
"We're as perplexed as anyone," he said of an inquest for which public appetite seemed to quickly ebb away once provincial action successfully resumed.
"Again, you're looking back now, but I think that a very, very small level of complacency has to have kicked in.
"You don't go from '18 to '19 (without something having gone awry). You might be talking only 1% from each player, but 1% added up over 30-odd players at that level can make a big difference.
"I think we believed what everyone was saying, and you know, you're very quick to go 'don't believe what they're saying' when it's negative, but you're never as quick to say it whenever it's positive. People should be more like that, and we should have been more streetwise, but we swept the world of rugby (in 2018), Grand Slam, Autumn, swept the World Rugby awards, and I think we went to Portugal (in August for a pre-World Cup camp) and probably slipped back to where we'd been before Joe.
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"We always talked how we nearly wasted those training camps before that week, it was seen as a 'get the feet up to recover', and I don't think we slipped that far back, but I don't think as a player group that we'd done the work we did in the 12 months previous, or 24 months previous to that.
"Whenever you start to leave little bits undone they'll always come back to bite you, and when you least want them to.
"For me, there has to have been a level of complacency."
From Japan in Shizuoka through the All Blacks in Yokohama, with Russia in Kobe sandwiched in between, this was a team that had began to look considerably less than the sum of its parts in the Far East.
With the Six Nations commanding only a diminished importance last year according to Joe Schmidt, Best believes too much was taken on by coaches that in past was left to senior players.
Having suffered a rude awakening upon return from that Portugal camp when thumped by England in a harrowing Twickenham afternoon, it had been decided that too much detail was coming too late in the week, something addressed at the World Cup before a seeming about-face prior to meeting the All Blacks.
"We started to just let Joe do everything," Best reflected while stressing the Kiwi remains the greatest coach he ever worked with. "The great thing about '18 was we had our own voice, our own mind. And we had that freedom at the end of the week to step into the space, to lead, that allowed us to lead. You can't just turn up at the Aviva Stadium at five o'clock and say 'right, it's our turn to lead'. You can get a bit lost.
"In '19, that end of the week space was starting to be filled a bit much with coaches. If there's a space there for the players to fill, and you don't fill it, they're going to fill it.
"At the end of that England defeat, we sat down with Joe and said 'we trust you implicitly, we know you'll get the tactics right, but you're going to have to trust us that from captain's run onwards, let us build in our own way'.
"After that, we did, by and large. The two Wales performances, under pressure, were good performances. Scotland was good. Then, when you breed this bit of complacency, something happens to shock you back out of it, then you're on edge, on edge, on edge, then you have that Scotland performance and it was almost as if 'phew, we're back to where we were in 2018', and it was almost as if we'd roll on now from here.
"Then we got back together again, and that's the one (Japan) - as a player group, we needed to be stronger in that space."
While then the cramming ahead of kick-off that senior players believed was detrimental can be explained by the short turnaround before facing the Brave Blossoms, Best thinks now that he should have put a stop to it before the fateful meeting with the All Blacks.
"We don't need lengthy meetings before (captain's run)," he said.
"The coaches deliver unbelievable detail, so we suggested putting a meeting in on Thursday evening, to go 'right, anything you need covered, do it now', then from Friday morning there's no meetings - we sit down as a player group and do our meetings, then we go off and do a captain's run.
"Everyone's so uptight (by that stage) that you can have a bit of craic, a little bit of touch, just to ease the tension.
"We can't start a match build-up on the morning of the game, it's got to be more a time let the boys breathe, have a bit of fun, play a stupid game of touch and everyone laughs and jokes.
"It's all about easing and breaking the tension a little bit. Then once we have the team meeting you get on the bus to the game and it's the first time you've heard Joe speak in 24 hours and it's really empowering and gets you ready to go.
"If you've a meeting Friday morning to start to build the tension, all you're doing is starting here (raises hand), and all it's only going one way, then it crashes.
"(New Zealand) was probably the best we'd trained in I can't remember how long. That week, Tuesday through Thursday, was really, really good.
"Whatever happened, the morning of the game, the coaches wanted a huddle and to go over plays. I think there was a little worry at that stage that we hadn't emphasised something enough.
"I thought that probably happened before the New Zealand game. It took three or four people to drop passes (in the aforementioned "stupid game") and to be put out before there was a big ripple of laughter.
"Too much detail, too much tension. If I'd known it was happening, I'd have probably said, 'look, I don't think we need this.'"
Ifs and buts now, of course, with the pain of the exit sure to linger far, far longer with the likes of Schmidt and Best than it ever could with even the most disgruntled of supporters.
"It's easy to say they got the prep wrong, they got the selection wrong, they got this and that wrong," Best continued.
"Ultimately I think as a player group, and me leading it, we should have stepped up a bit more during the Six Nations, when it was going wrong, and tried to lead a bit more.
"But hindsight is brilliant. You could ask the 40-odd players, they'll all give you different answers."
None in the near future, you imagine, will be quite so illuminating.
Rugby player Rory Best is an ambassador for Specsavers Audiologists’ Grandparent of the Year 2019 Award, celebrating the extraordinary contribution that grandparents make to the lives of grandchildren and the community.
Rory, together with his father John Best, launched this year’s award that looks for Ireland’s most exceptional grandparent. With the search now open, Rory and his father are encouraging grandchildren across the country to start nominating.
Grandchildren of all ages can nominate their grandparents by filling out an entry form in Specsavers’ stores nationwide or online at www.specsavers.ie/hearing/grandparent. The closing date for entries is Friday, 3 January and the four regional finalists will be chosen by a judging panel before Ireland’s Grandparent of the Year is announced in mid-January.