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'I had turned 37 nine days before the Twickenham defeat, and suddenly I felt old'

In this extract from his autobiography, former Ireland captain Rory Best looks back on a humbling defeat to England.

Ireland's Rory Best dejected after a game at Twickenham.
Ireland's Rory Best dejected after a game at Twickenham.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is extracted from My Autobiography by Rory Best, published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20).

We had opened our 2019 World Cup warm-up campaign winning 29–10 against Italy, but our first main test was to come against England at Twickenham. We knew we weren’t match fit, but what followed was like a car crash. We were blown away in a humiliating 57–15 defeat. We capitulated in the searing temperatures of more than 30 degrees.

When we got back into camp on Sunday night, I went to see Joe and let him know what I thought were the problems. One of them involved a need for greater freedom at the end of the week to let us lead. ‘You are the best coach in the world,’ I said, ‘but it is constant. You are micro-managing the captain’s run; you are micromanaging the mess-around before the pre-match meal. By the time we get to the pre-match talk, the players have heard you so much it has become too much.

‘The flip side of that is, if you give us the breathing space, I will promise you that we will be better organised, because I think we have been going along with it and allowed you to spoon-feed us.

‘We as a leadership group, and me as a captain, need to take more responsibility for what we are doing. I need to be better organised to know on a captain’s run what we are doing. If you say the captain’s run is ours, then you will get the details: I will tell you exactly which coaches I need and what equipment I need. You talk about us leading; you have to give us the room to lead.’

Joe bought into it. As with all great coaches, whenever you go to them with something, they know they would be mad not to give it due consideration if the players thought it would help. He came back with a few of his own ideas, but he also said, ‘Yes, no problem, we will give you that room. You tell us what you want and we will figure it out together.’ I said to Joe that while he sees everything, sometimes we didn’t need to hear everything, especially on a Friday. He agreed.

The backlash after our defeat at Twickenham was brutal. We may have privately already taken significant steps to sort out internal issues, but from outside the squad there seemed to be a clamour for blood. My blood, in particular.

I was done, past it. I had to go. I hadn’t read Twitter for months, because it is so destructive, but the doubts that I had overcome back in November came bubbling to the surface again. I had turned 37 nine days before the Twickenham defeat, and suddenly I felt old. Joe backed me, saying there was no ‘internal noise’ about my position, but I knew that what Joe says in a press conference isn’t always what he is thinking.

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I was going to tell him that I couldn’t play at this level any more and the best thing would be for me to walk away. Joe, however, asked me to play again, on the bench against Wales in Cardiff the following Saturday, and I thought, All right, I will play, but if it doesn’t go well I am out.

By then I had convinced myself that I had played terribly against England and told Jodie that if I did the same off the bench, I would take the decision out of Joe’s hands. Ultimately, I didn’t want Ireland to fail because the guy who was supposed to be their captain and leader was weighing them down.

When we landed in Cardiff, there were some autograph-hunters waiting and I made some comment to Joe about how this might be my last go because I didn’t know if I was capable any more. ‘Rory, if you weren’t good enough, I would be the first to tell you,’ he said.

‘Forget about the lineouts because that was a combination thing. They weren’t good, you didn’t throw some of them particularly well, people didn’t lift, people dropped balls. Forget about that. I think that with some of the other stuff that you did, you were actually one of our better performers. If there is a problem with you, I will tell you.’

Given all that Joe and I had been through together, his words meant the world to me. He was under pressure too, and it probably would have been easier for him to placate those in the media who wanted me out. It is at such times of duress that the judgement of those whom you respect counts for so much. And I made certain I would repay that faith. When I came on against Wales I made more tackles in the last twenty minutes than all but one player in either team. The performance convinced me to banish any thoughts of a premature retirement.

My Autobiography by Rory Best, published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). More info here.

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