On merit, Rory will remain first choice and captain - Neil Best
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Ireland versus Italy this weekend provides an opportunity for Joe Schmidt to rest and rotate his Irish squad – but he must leave captain Rory Best right where he is.
A lot of negativity came Best’s way after the England defeat but once again he put his critics to the sword – this time at Murrayfield – with another impressive individual performance. Best’s stock rose once more.
I always liked and respected Best, but he has grown and progressed since the days we were teammates. He’s now a fine leader and role model, who defines professionalism. He’s Ireland’s most successful captain, he’s Joe’s man and later this year he will have the chance to lead Ireland in what could well be the team’s most successful World Cup campaign ever.
But what happens post-Japan? Win or lose the clamour to replace Best will start all over again. Even if Best is player of the tournament and Ireland lift the Webb Ellis Cup – people will call for an end to his Test career. Some will say a new coach needs a new captain. Others will say we must start young and build for the next campaign. The net result is the same, a post-Best Irish team.
Best is selfless and epitomises what it is to be a team man. But Best must also think of his legacy. Rather than planning for post-Japan retirement, he should plan how to keep going.
On merit, he will remain first choice so why walk away? The World Cup is in the autumn and the 2020 Six Nations will only be a few months away.
Best has many accolades. Six Nations, Grand Slam, most successful captain, victories over the All-Blacks… the list just goes on. As Ireland captain, he’s been close to faultless with the sole blemish being his attendance at the rape trial of former Ulster and Ireland teammates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding – who were both subsequently acquitted. You have got to question the judgment and advice of the PR folk at Ulster and Ireland levels in how his attendance came about.
But on rugby, one Best statistic stands above all for me – most caps. He is Ireland’s most capped hooker, most capped forward and third in the all-time list for Test appearances. By the time the World Cup is over – barring injury – he’ll be a stone’s throw off first spot – the most capped Irishman of all time – right on the shoulder of the great Brian O’Driscoll. If you get that close, you’ve got to finish the job.
When Best does finally stand down, who knows when next we will see an Ulsterman captain Ireland? It’s equally as important for Ulster and its place in the narrative of Irish rugby history that Best keeps going just that little bit longer. You cannot overstate the pride Ulster fans would have if he managed to tick off the most capped box too.
Ireland shouldn’t give up on the Six Nations just yet, and Italy will be a chance to pick up a bonus point and lay the foundations for France in Dublin where another bonus is realistic.
As is the way with the Six Nations, you will probably have as much Irish attention on Cardiff as Rome this weekend – Irishmen and women across the globe will be feeling that little bit Welsh come Saturday – we’ll all be men (and women) of Harlech for a few hours.
Echoes loudly waking, Hill and valley shaking; ‘Till the sound spreads wide around, The Saxon’s courage breaking; Your foes on every side assailing, Forward press with heart unfailing, ‘Till invaders learn with quailing, Cambria ne’er can yield!
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