Eight years ago this week, Ireland played their last ever international at the old Lansdowne Road. The 61-17 win over the Pacific Islanders completed a November clean sweep for the men in green, a feat not matched until Saturday evening.
Rory Best is one of the surviving players from that Pacific Islanders game, along with current Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip. Simon Easterby, the squad’s new forwards coach, was also involved.
The 2006 run of victories over South Africa (32-15), Australia (21-6) and the Pacific Islanders (61-7) had expectation levels hit fever pitch as Ireland moved to third in the IRB World Rankings, with the Rugby World Cup on the following year.
Given his experience of that time and what followed, hooker Best is ideally placed to pass judgement on the similar circumstances that Ireland find themselves in now following their trio of GUINNESS Series wins this month, including two prized southern Hemisphere scalps.
The Ulster skipper feels Ireland’s class of 2014 have matched being consistent with an ability to beat the best teams in the world – the 26-23 success over the Wallabies on Saturday was their seventh Test win in a row.
“In 2006 I was involved in a team that did something similar, won three (November) games, and then some eleven months later at the World Cup, it’s an understatement to say it didn’t go according to plan,” said Best.
“For us, we talk about learning lessons. We’ve learned lessons from how to close a game out, compared to twelve months ago.
“We talk a lot about taking each game as it comes, we’ve done that so far under Joe (Schmidt), and now it’s very much a case of doing that again. This is going to put a bit of pressure on us, because people are going to want to come and beat us now.
“But it’s a good place to be, because when people are coming to beat you it means that you’re going well and doing a lot of things right. It means you have to be even better every time you take the pitch now.”
With Australia able to introduce the likes of Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper off their replacements bench, Ireland needed to dig deep in order to see out the result in the final GUINNESS Series Test.
Fitness and work ethic has been a source of pride for Irish teams over the past decade but last year little mistakes proved costly as a first ever win against the All Blacks eluded them right at the death. That mental toughness is the difference between Ireland now and this time last year, according to Best.
“The pleasing thing for us compared to where we were twelve months ago is that mentally, we stayed in (the game against Australia). If you look at it twelve months ago we went mistake after mistake, mental switch-offs if you like, but this time around in a similar position, we didn’t.
“We stuck to our system, we came off the line, we hit and stuck, and we really put pressure on them. Ultimately Australia were the ones under pressure because they were the ones who had to get points in some shape or form.
“We put pressure on them, everyone stuck to their job and the big thing for us is that no one threw in the towel mentally.”
Having not played against South Africa or Georgia due to a slow healing calf strain, Best was delighted to be back in the green jersey as he extended his record as Ireland’s most-capped hooker to 78 matches.
Asked how he felt after the game, he replied: “A little tired, the first 15 minutes were a fair pace, but it was nice to get in.
“It’s always tough when you haven’t played for three or four weeks to come back in and face a team like Australia who you know are going to play a very wide, fast game if you let them. I was a little bit sore but it was nice to get a hit-out, and nice to be involved in a team that won.”
The 32-year-old added: “I think when you look back at the series, to beat two of the top teams and then to make a lot of changes and to really take a team like Georgia apart in the first half, maybe it didn’t show in the score, but I think we got the rewards in the second half from that.
“We have a lot of injuries, but we also played a lot of players in this autumn series and got three wins. We’re in a really good place.”