|Six Nations 2019: Ireland v England|
|Venue:Aviva Stadium, DublinDate:Saturday 2 FebruaryKick-off:16:45 GMT|
|Coverage:Live on BBC Radio 5 live and Radio Ulster, plus live text commentary & highlights on the BBC Sport website.|
He is already Ireland’s most successful captain – but Rory Best is not yet ready to rest on his laurels.
A Grand Slam title, a Triple Crown, a first Test win in South Africa and leading Ireland to their only two victories against New Zealand: Best has amassed a glittering CV since succeeding Paul O’Connell as Ireland skipper three years ago.
The unassuming Ulster hooker will turn 37 before the start of the Rugby World Cup this year but he remains fixated on adding more lustre to his legacy as he contemplates what is likely to be his final season with Ireland.
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“I love playing rugby and as long as I feel I can compete I will keep doing it,” says Best, the subject of a documentary to be shown onBBC One Northern Ireland on Wednesday.
“It’s just about trying to enjoy every moment, trying to get better and just to make sure the hunger to succeed stays.”
Winning partnership with coach Schmidt
Head coach Joe Schmidt, who identified Best as the man to lead his team following O’Connell’s retirement after the 2015 World Cup, describes his captain as “a quiet achiever” who gets the most out of himself and those around him.
“If you are leading, you have got to get the best out of yourself, you have got to be modelling sorts of behaviours that other people need to exhibit,” says Schmidt.
“Rory does that. He gets the best out of others through quiet engagement most of the time.
“He can stir guys up and demand something from them, but he mostly encourages and spreads the load well by getting other guys to speak up and, I suppose, lead.”
Schmidt and Best have formed an impressive partnership at the helm of the most successful team in Irish history.
The deputy school principal from Northland, New Zealand and the son of a farming family from Poyntzpass in County Armagh together personify their team’s professional attention to detail and steely resolve.
Although he has risen through the ranks of Ulster and Irish rugby to twice tour with the British and Irish Lions (2013 and 2017) and achieve widespread acclaim, it is the fear of failure that still drives Best to strive for greater heights.
“Whether you want to admit it or not, everyone is a little bit insecure,” he reveals.
“That is sometimes the difference between the top players and the guys that maybe get a handful of caps or don’t get any.
“It’s because you are never assured in you own position. You always want to get better because you are afraid of standing still and someone coming past you.”
A constant presence on Ireland’s biggest days
Having made his Test debut alongside his brother Simon against New Zealand in 2005, Best marked his 99th cap against the same opposition on what was one of the most memorable days in Irish sport as he led his side to a thrilling win at Soldier Field, Chicago to end a 111-year wait to achieve theirfirst victory over the All Blacks.
He was a second-half substitute when Ireland ended their other infamous barren spell – the2009 Six Nations winthat bridged a 61-year gap since Ireland’s only previous Grand Slam – and triggered an era of success that has also featured championship wins in 2014 and 2015.
“The championships in ’14 and ’15 probably meant more to me than the Grand Slam in ’09 did,” he admits.
“You want to be that starting hooker, you feel it is so close and you are not distant from it, which is probably what I felt a little bit in ’09.
“I started every game in ’18 and I obviously felt like I played a large part in that success.”
Now into his 14th season with Ireland, Best is already his country’s most-decorated hooker and as he prepares to earn his 114th cap he is aiming to become the first man to lead his side to back-to-back Grand Slams since Italy’s addition to the tournament in 2000.
“Everyone wants to beat you because you will more than likely go in as favourites. So people lift their game for that,” he adds.
“The fixture list falls slightly harder for us because we have three away games instead of two. Then the way the run-in goes with a six-day turnaround at the end between the games against France and Wales and then to play England first up, it is really difficult.”
The team always comes first
Inside the Ireland camp, Schimdt has developed a leadership group that helps to take some of the pressure off his captain.
Vice-captains Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony will take charge of team meetings throughout game week, which allows Best to offer a fresh voice on the eve of the match.
Sexton, who is also captain of Leinster, describes his skipper as a “very family-orientated man”, who puts the team first at all times.
“He inspires you with the way he plays and how he speaks but his decision making under pressure is his greatest strength as a captain, he always does what’s best for the team,” explains the Ireland fly-half.
“Sometimes it won’t be best for him but he puts the team above himself.
“The line-out might not be functioning and it’s not down to him, it could be due to loads of things, and he will still say ‘no Johnny we need to go to the corner here’.
“Putting pressure on himself and on the line-out and that’s a huge compliment to him as there are a lot of other captains who would say ‘just kick for the points’ and take the pressure off himself but he does not do that.”
End game approaching
Best’s contract with the IRFU will end after the Rugby World Cup in November and it now seems inevitable that – injury permitting – the hooker will bring the curtain down on his international career at the same time asSchmidt steps downfrom his role.
But the Ulster captain has yet to decide whether or not to continue playing with his province, where he has achieved a talismanic status.
“Every now and again I think right I can make a decision something happens – you get 10 points against Scarlets in December – and I’m loving playing for Ulster at the minute,” Best explains.
“Then you go out and its lashing rain and it feels more like snow than rain and its windy and you are looking at yourself thinking ‘why am I still doing this?’.
“Ulster haven’t pushed me to do anything and the IRFU haven’t pushed me towards anything but I will make a decision sooner rather than later.
“At the minute I’m just in a rare position where I can just see what happens as I go along.”
But before that decision day arrives, there is still unfinished business before he contemplates retiring to the farm: “The last two things would be to captain Ireland at a World Cup and then to win a quarter-final, they are the two big things that I have never done before.
“To go to a fourth World Cup would be unbelievable. The fact that they are four years apart and I would have been able to go to four of them means you have obviously stood the test of time.
“So to be able to captain them and win a quarter-final, that would mean I could eventually retire from the game and sort of be happy with my contribution not just to Ulster rugby but to Irish rugby on a world stage.”
Rory Best: A Life in Rugby– BBC One NI on Wednesday, 30 January at 22:40 GMT
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