Ghost of O'Connell no longer hangs over Ireland captain Best

London (AFP) –


Rory Best will lead Ireland out at the Rugby World Cup much more comfortable in his skin than when he first took over the captaincy from legendary lock Paul O'Connell, he told AFP.

The 37-year-old hooker succeeded O'Connell when the lock brought the curtain down on his Test career after the Irish lost to Argentina in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals.

Now Best himself will retire at the end of the World Cup and bowed out in style in his last home Test at Lansdowne Road with victory over Wales last Saturday.

Best, who has 120 caps to his credit since making his debut in 2005, and head coach Joe Schmidt have overseen a remarkable few years for the Irish, including two historic wins over world champions New Zealand and the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam. That was only the third in their history.

However, Best said it took him a while to become comfortable as skipper, such was the challenge of replacing a dominant character like O'Connell.

"Obviously taking over from someone like Paul O'Connell, who is a world-renowned captain and player is difficult," he said.

"The hardest thing at the start is not to kind of mimic him completely.

"You feel a bit under pressure at what he has done and feel a little bit of pressure to be the leader as he is conceived to be and try not to talk all the time."

Best, though, has grown into the job and his leadership qualities are much respected.

Irish rugby legend Tony Ward told AFP his excellent captaincy gives him the edge in retaining his place as first-choice hooker, despite some questioning his status after a poor performance by the Irish line-out in the humiliating 57-15 thrashing by England last month.

"Probably over the last three nearly four years I have become a lot more relaxed and confident in my leadership," said Best.

"I am also a lot happier and more confident to allow others to express their qualities and to utilise other captains we have in the squad."

- 'A release for me' -

Best, who is rare in Irish rugby in that he has been part of two Six Nations Grand Slam teams having been second-choice hooker in the 2009 team, has a ready-made career awaiting him after rugby in the shape of the family farm in Northern Ireland.

The farm -- a mix of arable and cattle -- is a place that the personable and thoughtful Best has found to be a haven when he has returned from rugby duty. To relax, he goes out to see the pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd.

"Farming has always been great, something nice to finish up doing after a day's training and the stresses of captaining Ulster or Ireland," he said.

"To get home and spend at least half an hour if you have had a good day or longer if it has been a tough day.

"You don't want to take the stresses and all the pressures out on your family and instead be alone with your thoughts.

"It is obviously a great way of life -- something I have always loved doing.

"It is different, a nice sort of change of scenery and a release for me."

Best is very much from a rugby-loving family -- though with his mischievous humour he recalled his main motivation for going to Dublin for matches with his father as a young boy was the steak dinner on the way back -- and he always sought out his schoolteacher wife Jodie and three children in the stand when he lined up.

He paraded proudly round Lansdowne Road last Saturday with them following the final whistle.

However, he says leaving them behind for tours or a World Cup has got easier.

"I suppose the great thing in immersing them at a young age in rugby is they are used to seeing me go away," he said.

"The fact they are more and more settled about that and less upset at home makes it easier."