Joe Schmidt is famous for his planning acumen. So we must presume that when Schmidt completed his World Cup preparations, he was comfortable with the idea of travelling to the 2019 World Cup with a 37-year-old hooker in his starting XV. Rory Best has been integral to all of Ireland's success under Schmidt. That is undeniable. But in the aftermath of Saturday's humiliation against England, Best has quickly become Ireland's fall guy.
In yesterday's press conference, Schmidt publicly declared his confidence in his captain, though his statements can also put Best on notice.
"No roles have been finalised for the World Cup until we name our 31 later on next week."
"No-one takes anything for granted. Rory is currently the captain and he’ll continue to be captain until further notice really, and if that notice comes in the short term then that’s a discussion I’ll have with Rory.
"At this stage it’s not on our agenda.
"We don’t operate in a safe environment… it’s an incredibly competitive environment."
Schmidt also said that Best is likely to feature against Wales in Saturday. You'd imagine that Best relishes the chance to prove his worth, but you fear for him as well, considering the quick turnaround, the putrid shape the Irish lineout is in and the general malaise abounding from the Irish team when they step on the pitch.
At a PR gig in Dublin yesterday, Brian O'Driscoll made the case for keeping Best in the team. We can hear him trying to make the case for the Ulster hooker, but it's hard to read these quotes without feeling a heavy dose of skepticism about the idea of retaining him.
“He doesn’t carry the way he once did. He doesn’t even seem to get the same level of turnovers he once did and staying in there.
“So the issue with him is he doesn’t have to be the best player on the park. He doesn’t have to be in the top 13 players on the park, but he has to justify his position, because his captaincy is an asset and an extra element to his game.
“He just needs to facilitate others really performing. So his darts have to be spot on. He has to scrum well and he’s got to hit rucks. And that’s really all that is asked of a 37-year-old after being soldiering as long as he has. And if he can sort that bit out then he absolutely justifies being in the team because of what’s behind him, but also because of what else he brings to the side, a cool head in stressful conditions. He just needs to sort out his game and I think you’ll have a much better overall outcome.”
This is all fair and rational but scrummaging and lineout throwing are skills that depreciate with age. It also raises another question: what value should we put on leadership? You wouldn't call this Ireland team inexperienced. With Peter O'Mahony and Johnny Sexton guaranteed to start in the Ireland XV, you'd almost think Ireland could sacrifice some leadership if it meant a fully functioning lineout and some added ball-carrying pop. But this is the nub of the problem. Best has held his place for so long primarily because Schmidt remains iffy on those challenging him for his #2 shirt. Sean Cronin would seem like the most likely player to replace Best, but he was in Schmidt's doghouse as recently as last March, after being dropped from the squad for the France and Wales Six Nations games. He returned from exile last weekend to start on the bench following Rob Herring's injury against Italy. Herring trained yesterday. Niall Scannell has been given a few cameos in Cronin's absence. None of these three men seem ready seem ready to step into Best's shoes in Japan.
When Joe Schmidt sat back and imagined his worst case scenarios for this World Cup at the start of the summer, Rory Best's form falling off a cliff must have weighed heavily on his mind. From reading in-depth analysis, it's clear that Best is not the only problem with the Irish lineout. Either way, we now enter a crucial period both for Best and Schmidt, two men who will be ending their involvement with the Ireland team whenever Ireland exit the World Cup.