Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# Contenders
'The big thing is that we don't overestimate the talent in the Southern Hemisphere'
Ireland hooker Rory Best says Michael Cheika’s Australia have been impressive in recent weeks.

THOSE WHO WATCHED New Zealand and South Africa produce a thrilling Rugby Championship encounter last weekend might have felt a little fear at the prospect of their nation facing either of the two giants at the World Cup.

Rory Best was impressed by the fare on offer in Johannesburg, but he won’t be losing any sleep with concerns about Ireland’s ability to compete.

Paul O'Connell talks to Rory Best Dan Sheridan / INPHO Rory Best (white scrum cap) is a key leader in the Ireland pack. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Joe Schmidt’s side could potentially meet the Kiwis at the quarter-final or final stages, though their only likely encounter with the Springboks is in the tournament decider on 31 October in Twickenham.

While Ireland and the rest of the Six Nations sides have been going through their pre-seasons since late June, the Rugby Championship has been closely observed.

Best feels New Zealand and South Africa aren’t the only potential World Cup contenders on view. He has serious respect for Michael Cheika’s ever-improving Australia, who Ireland could meet in a semi-final.

I think the Test match last weekend was a great spectacle and it seems to be every time New Zealand and South Africa play each other,” said Ulster captain Best. “There were aspects of it that were very, very impressive.

“Before the game even started you knew they are two teams that are going to be in contention. The one that not many people are talking about is Australia, but to show the mentality they showed to come back against South Africa (in the first round).

“Then to go to Argentina and win, in the end, reasonably comfortably – it says a lot. I think you saw it when Cheika came into Leinster the first time, in a team that everyone said needed a backbone to win things.

Rory Best PRESSEYE / Matt Mackey/INPHO Best at Kingspan Stadium in the new Ulster home jersey. PRESSEYE / Matt Mackey/INPHO / Matt Mackey/INPHO

“They could never get a backbone and all of a sudden Cheika produced one. They went on and look what they’ve done in his era and beyond. You can nearly see elements of that with Australia in that they have the mental fortitude to come back and beat South Africa.”

It’s almost habit at this stage to rave about the All Blacks as the World Cup approaches, fear the physical power of the Boks and quiver at the thought of the Wallabies’ attacking riches.

However, Schmidt’s Ireland come into this tournament with strong backing too. They find themselves in the position of having to deal with high expectations, the hope being for a first-ever semi-final and maybe even more.

You’re coming off the back of back-to-back Six Nations championships, so you’re going to be a fancied team, of course,” said Best at Kingspan Stadium yesterday. “The way we’re looking at it is that people can talk however they want.

“We know what we need to get right to even be in that ballpark and that’s what we’re working on at the minute, making sure that we get stuff right and we’re doing things as professionally as we can and that we’re not cutting any corners.

“There’s a lot of talent around, but the big thing is that we don’t overestimate the talent in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s a fair bit of talent in the Northern Hemisphere as well.

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Rory Best scores his sides second try James Crombie / INPHO Best scored against New Zealand in Dublin in 2013. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“When you watch the last weekend of the Six Nations, if that had been produced down in the Rugby Championship people would be talking about it for years and years to come. For me, it was the greatest weekend – even though I was stuck in the middle of it. As a pure rugby spectacle, it was outstanding.”

Ireland’s preparation for facing the very best in the world moves up another notch in eight days’ time, when they take on Warren Gatland’s Wales in Cardiff on 8 August.

After the “necessary evil” that has been the last five weeks of heavy pre-season training, Best says he and his teammates are relieved to be nearing a return to game day.

“We feel we’re building well,” said Best. “It’s going to be a major step up on Saturday week from what we’re doing.

“There’s only so much you can replicate on the training pitch and in fitness games compared to what it’s going to be like in the Millennium Stadium under a closed roof. For boys hoping to go to the World Cup it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”

- This article was updated at 11.58 to alter the word ‘possible’ to ‘likely’ in the third paragraph to reflect the fact that Ireland could meet South Africa in the semi-finals.

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