Former Ulster and Ireland captain Rory Best believes Ireland will need to build on their squad depth if they are to become one of the best sides in the world.
Best, who retired from rugby at the end of the 2019 World Cup, feels head coach Andy Farrell must balance performance against the need to rotate players in the upcoming Autumn Internationals.
“When they get their strongest team out, Ireland will always perform really well,” Best told Primer Sports.
“It’s then a question of whether you can get depth in a couple of key areas?”
Ireland ended their four-match losing drought against England during the last round of the Six Nations in what was a huge win for the men in green.
For the ex-Ireland hooker, the win was vital to take the pressure off Andy Farrell, giving the head coach “a little more leeway to keep pushing for depth.”
“If Ireland had gone into November, potentially only having only finished fifth in the Six Nations, the scope for experimenting would have been really tight because there is a pressure to perform and a pressure to get results, so that’s probably the biggest thing for Farrell,” the Ulsterman said.
“I think that’s something Ireland are always needing to push for.”
“At the minute, there’s just no scope for them to make too many changes because they have to be in tune with what Andy expects in terms of performance.
“The only way to do that is to get your key players on the pitch.
“Until you get that, you can’t rest your key players. But until you rest or rotate a key player, you don’t get your squad depth, and the reliance on key players becomes much more.”
Experience Is Key
Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton were particularly instrumental in Ireland’s win against England, combining well to keep the English on the back foot for the majority of the match.
“The experience and confidence those players bring is really vital; it also brings confidence to everyone else.”
“But you have to have plenty of options around these guys because you need to take the pressure off them. You can’t expect them to be churning out 80 minutes, 80 minutes, 80 minutes.”
Another key player is Munsterman Keith Earls, who tore through England’s defence to score his 34th try for Ireland.
“Earlsy (Keith Earls) is a great guy. He’s reasonably quiet, but he’s somebody people want to be around. You can’t help but really enjoy his company,” the Ulsterman said.
“He doesn’t speak often, but when he does, people really sit up and listen. He trains hard, he leads by example, and the thing he brings as much as anything is that you know you’re going to get everything with Earls.
“It means a lot to him just to play for Ireland. He shows a lot of that every time he plays, and that again is infectious, just that sheer pride.”
The Next Generation
Although it’s not just Ireland’s experienced players who have stood up during the championships, and for Rory Best, there’s a new generation of leaders coming through the ranks.
“If you look at performances during the Six Nations, stand out players have been the likes of Ian Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, and Tadgh Furlong.
“These guys are in their late 20s and are in that perfect age bracket that are your best and most consistent years.”
“The big thing for Ireland now is that they give these guys the opportunity to be leaders within the team.
“Johnny (Sexton), Connor (Murray), and Earlsy (Keith Earls) have a really important role in terms of being the mainstays that allow these younger guys in their prime to take on a bit of that mantle.”
Coming back from a long injury lay-off, Tadgh Furlong slotted straight into the tighthead position and has been imperious at the scrum. Along with Best’s Ulster understudy, Rob Herring, the Irish front row has dominated their opposition at the set-piece during the Six Nations.
Behind them, Ian Henderson and Tadgh Beirne have operated as two extra back-row forwards, both showing off their incredible ball carrying skills against the English.
In the backline, the talented centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose have both stuck their hands up as leaders within the side. While Leinster’s Hugo Keenan and James Lowe have also proved that Andy Farrell has a wealth of young players coming into their prime in this squad.
“If you look at the best teams in the world, they have a really good balance. England, for example, going into that last World Cup, were still quite young in terms of experience,” Best said.
“But they had a really good balance of a couple of young guys, a couple of old guys, and the majority of them were in the 25-30 age bracket.”
Andy Farrell will be hoping to strike a similar equilibrium as Ireland build towards the 2023 World Cup.
But with the British and Irish Lions tour coming this summer, all heads will now turn to who Warren Gatland will be including in his 36-man squad.
Fronting Up Against South Africa
For two-time tourist Rory Best, the Lions will need players who can roll up their sleeves and take on the Springboks upfront.
“Firstly, anytime you play against South Africa, you’ve got to be good at the set-piece,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that’s what cost England dearly in the World Cup final.
“But it’s not just the fact that with a good set-piece South Africa can control the game. As a nation and a rugby team, the Boks pride themselves on being able to dominate you.”
The Ulsterman captained Ireland in their 38-3 demolition over of the Springboks back in 2017 and sees the best way to beat South Africa is to match them physically.
“If you allow them to dominate an area, where they can put their chest out and grow six inches, they can become a handful.
“But because of their psyche, you can twist that the other way, and if you get that right, it has the opposite effect of what you saw in the World Cup final.
“They start to look nervous, and if they can’t really exert themselves as this big physical force, then you see a change.”
New Zealand troubled the Boks in the group stages of the 2019 World Cup by raising the intensity of the contest.
South Africa then struggled to find an attack and succumbed to the All Black’s pressure.
“That’s also why sometimes, with South Africa, you can’t quite get your head around why they played so poorly,” Best said.
“It’s because you’ve gone after them and matched or dominated them upfront. That’s when they struggle to get anything going off the back of that.
“So upfront is massive for the lions as it is any time you play South Africa because physicality is in their psyche and in their nature.”
Leaders Of The Pride
To combat the relentless intensity that South Africa will bring, Best believes the Lions will need to take leaders like Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.
“You need characters, and you need guys who are competitors and are winners. You need players that bring people through and give confidence to those around them.
“If you look at the two out-halves from the last tour, Owen (Farrell) and Johnny (Sexton), I know Owen’s playing 12 at the moment, but they’re two people who can bring that. When they speak, you go yeah, we can win.
“Both of them are very similar in that aspect because they’re both winners, and they’ve come from successful clubs and successful nations.
“They have this ability to kind of make you feel like any doubts you have will go away when they speak. You know, when you’re in tough moments, they’re the sort of people you need.”
Best’s comments follow that of former Ireland teammate Paul O’Connell who told PA Media earlier this week that he’d back Owen Farrell to lead the Lions this summer.
“There are plenty of guys who could do the job but for me in terms of experience and an appetite to lead, he’s the real standout.”— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) April 15, 2021
Paul O’Connell views Owen Farrell as the leading candidate to captain the British and Irish Lions in South Africa: https://t.co/xdgCQ7lKsc pic.twitter.com/oyKdxmJzfy
“You need guys that are going to keep rolling up their sleeves and are going to keep going after the opposition,” Best continued.
“South Africa are going to be relentless up-front, and the Lions are going to have to find ways to produce things when they’re under the cosh. That’s why the Lions will need big characters and winners to go, as the harder it gets, the more you’ll get from those players.”