Rory Best has admitted he had to “block out” criticism and pressure ahead of captaining Ireland to their first-ever win over New Zealand on home soil.
Best conjured a compelling return to form as Ireland stunned the back-to-back world champions 16-9 at a raucous Aviva Stadium on Saturday night.
The 36-year-old hooker devised the strategy of the Ireland squad taking one collective step towards the Haka, to prove the All Blacks could not bully the hosts.
Best then hit back to form after Ireland’s patchy showing in the 28-17 win over Argentina the previous week, in an authoritative reassertion of his Test captaincy credentials.
Asked to sum up his feelings at receiving a standing ovation when he was substituted late on, Best joked: “I thought that was actually for Tadhg Furlong who came off at the same time, he had an unbelievable day in the scrum!”
Getting serious however, Best continued: “I just felt a little bit rusty in there last week at the line-out, and we were put under a lot of pressure by New Zealand in that area as well.
“So I just had to block a bit of that out, and go about doing what I do well for the team.
“And that’s working hard, trying to hit a few things, clean a few rucks and be there whenever the team needed me.
“And if everyone does that and everyone puts their hand up, then generally you get a good team performance.”
Best has now had a hand in two unique ploys to neutralise the Haka, the war dance challenge shrouded in mystique from which New Zealand draw huge inspiration.
The 113-cap front-rower helped devise the figure-eight standing pattern to face the Haka in tribute to the late former Ireland back-rower and Munster coach Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley before the maiden victory over the All Blacks in Chicago.
And Best backed up that touching and smart move before the 40-29 win over New Zealand in the USA by concocting Saturday’s ruse.
The crowd roared its approval and Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins wrote a letter of thanks to Best and the Irish rugby team yesterday morning.
Asked to choose which All Blacks win he will cherish more, Chicago or Dublin, Best refused to separate the triumphs.
“They are both firsts for us, so I wouldn’t look at one as better than the other,” said Best. “They’ve been world number one for nine years, so we knew it was going to take a big effort.
“It’s hard to know what it feels like at the minute; you’re physically exhausted but mentally absolutely ecstatic. It’s another little bit of history that this squad has managed for itself.”
Jacob Stockdale’s cunning try separated the teams in the end, with the move straight out of head coach Joe Schmidt’s one-off play-book.
Confirming Best’s pre-match input, backrow Josh Van Der Flier said: “I think it just represented the fact we weren’t going to take a backward step the whole game.
“That’s what Rory said to us, we wanted to go after them, not step away, not accept being bullied by them.
“That was part of it and then I suppose it’s a pretty special moment as a team all being together and watching something as historic as the Haka. So it’s quite cool.
“You watch any game New Zealand play, they are incredibly physical, so we knew we had to come out and go after them. We knew we couldn’t sit back. We went out to go after them and really put pressure on them.”
And Van Der Flier hailed the Ireland skipper’s all-round leadership qualities.
“Rory understands players very well. He’ll put his arm around you but will also know if you need a good talking to,” said Van Der Flier.
“Mostly he’s very softly spoken but says exactly what needs to be said.
“He won’t over-talk and he knows what’s best for the team, and always gives his all for the team.
“When you see the performances he puts in and how much effort he puts in every week, and how he trains and everything, he’s someone it’s a privilege to follow,” he added.
“He’s a massive competitor, incredibly competitive. And you see his work at the breakdown every week, he’s brilliant. He puts in a shift every time and does his all.”