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'The Championship is struggling... I've seen people get really screwed over'

Mark Best spent two years on a development contract with Ulster but never got a senior debut.

IT WAS LAST November when Mark Best broke his arm playing for Jersey against Newcastle in the English Championship.

The 26-year-old Irish centre raced forward to collect an overthrown lineout but an opposition knee connected with him as he tried to gather in the bouncing ball.

Looking down at his arm sitting at a funny angle, Best knew he was in trouble.

“The bone didn’t break the skin but it was sitting there just under the skin,” recounts the former Ulster midfielder. “I dislocated my wrist as well so made a bit of a mess of it.”

There was surgery the next day to install a metal plate and seven screws, with a cast applied all the way up to his bicep. He needed a ‘K-wire’ for the dislocated wrist and that became infected over Christmas, adding another month to his recovery time.

dave-johnston-tackles-mark-best Best in action for Ulster A in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Best has happily been recovering from the injury back home in Belfast during the lockdown and probably would have even managed a few farewell appearances for Jersey after three years with the club but for the rest of the Championship season being cancelled.

“You can be thrown into things in the Championship without being 100% fit,” says Best, pointing to the reality of life in England’s second tier.

He has signed a deal to join Doncaster next season, although the disarray within the Championship at present means it’s not 100% certain to go through. All going well, he will join the Knights on a one-year contract with the option for another year.

The arm break was Best’s first serious injury, but it was really just the latest setback in a rugby journey that has seen him face a fair few.

He played in the back row and midfield during his school days with Methody and Campbell College, advancing onto the Ireland U18s squad in 2011 as a flanker, featuring alongside the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy as they won the FIRA-AER Championship in France.

Ulster asked him to move into the front row when he left school but Best didn’t fancy it, deciding to focus on being a centre, where he played for the Ulster U20s.

He headed to Australia for a couple of months in 2012 to play for a club in Canberra, satisfying a bit of wanderlust, before a call came from the Ireland U20s to come back for a trial match. To his disappointment, he didn’t get picked for the World Cup in New Zealand despite a good performance.

After a second season at Ulster U20s level in 2013, Best was overlooked for an academy spot and instead excelled in the All-Ireland League with Belfast Harlequins. While he was working full-time as an estate agent, he still retained hope of getting a chance with Ulster.

“In the AIL, you play against players on the fringes of the pro teams and I felt I was doing well,” says Best. “I was playing with mates and working 9 to 5 but I enjoyed it so much and that improves your game.”

mark-best-with-mark-scott-lennon Best scores for Belfast Harlequins in 2012. Source: Matt Mackey

By 2015, Best’s performances meant he was being picked in Ulster A teams and he earned a development contract with the province for the 2015/16 season.

His impactful displays for the A team continued in that campaign and his deal was extended for the 2016/17 season but Best never got a shot with the senior team despite some good form. There was real midfield depth in Ulster during this time with the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Jared Payne, and Sammy Arnold there, but even still he was disappointed not to get a shot.

“At one stage, there were eight weeks in a row where I was the 24th man and never actually got a chance,” says Best.

“I remember Craig Gilroy getting a knock in the warm-up at Thomond Park. He played on but only lasted seven minutes and Sammy Arnold came off the bench. I was sitting there thinking it wasn’t meant to be.”

The lack of chances annoyed Best but he reflects now that he could have done more himself.

“I probably didn’t push enough. I didn’t realise that you had to go to the coach’s office and be like, ‘Why aren’t I playing?’ It probably looked like I was happy enough to be sitting on the A team but obviously I wasn’t at all.

“I just wasn’t probably brave enough to put my name forward. Now after being away for three years, I’ve probably grown up a lot and know my game better than I ever have.”

Former Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell was influential in first bringing Best into the province, but the centre admits that his relationship with director of rugby Les Kiss wasn’t strong.

“Me and Les Kiss just didn’t really see eye-to-eye, I don’t think my face fitted with him.”

Despite the complete lack of first-team appearances, Best had initially felt Ulster were positive about him moving onto a senior contract in 2017 but says that suddenly evaporated as he was informed in late March that he would be released.

Source: Mark Best/YouTube

“It came as a bit of a shock, to be honest. It was late on and that’s what shocked me. I was expecting to go into that meeting and get a new contract, that was the indication I’d had but Les sort of pulled the plug on it all. That put a dampener on my relationship with Les which is frustrating.”  

Best’s agent, Andrew Park, got to work immediately and within two days of that meeting with Ulster, he had signed for Jersey in the Championship.

As he landed onto the island for the next chapter of his career, the first person to greet Best was Jerry Sexton, his former Ireland U18 team-mate, and the pair of them lived with ex-Ulster back row Conor Joyce for his first season with the club.

Life in Jersey during the summer months is “absolutely incredible” thanks to the warm weather, festivals and generally lively vibe, explains Best, but the dark and gloomy winters with nothing to do can be a drag.

On the pitch, the Reds were very forward-orientated in his first season but they loosened up in 2018/19 and Best thrived in midfield as his offloading and left-footed kicking skills prospered. He says it was “the most enjoyable season of professional rugby I’ve played” and Best feels he has improved as a player in more than 50 games with Jersey.

“I’ve spent so much time working on those left-footed kicks and that part of my game has improved. So has my defence. I used to always just go for a big shot and I’d fall off a few tackles, which probably frustrated people.

“I always want to make the big shot, not just tickle people, but I’ve come to understand you can’t just smash someone every time. You have to pick your moments. When you can smash someone, lay them out.”

Best is hopeful there will be no last-minute hitches with his move to Doncaster but he understands the realities of the Championship having seen it up close for three years.

The RFU’s cuts to funding even before the Covid-19 crisis means things are more precarious than ever.

“The Championship is struggling, no one can hide that,” says Best. “Cornish Pirates and Ealing have money behind them but the rest of the clubs don’t.

sean-oconnor-tackles-mark-best Best looks to free the ball for an offload. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Now these added cuts have come in, so that’s added fuel to the fire. Some clubs will go part-time outside the top four or five clubs. It takes some of the competition away.

“If Saracens are coming down and playing against people who are working in an office from 9 to 5 on Monday to Friday, it seems a bit pointless, to be honest. There should be more backing from the RFU, it has gone the wrong way.

“You’ve seen so many players come through the Championship and do well. It’s frustrating because there is so much talent there.”

The financial uncertainty means that job security can be lacking at times.

“I’ve seen people get really screwed over,” says Best. “In the fine print in Championship contracts, you’ll see 12-week injury termination.

“If a club wants to terminate your contract after a 12-week injury, they basically can. Thankfully, that didn’t happen to me this year, but they could have done.”

Best has been looking to his future outside of rugby, examining the possibility of studying Sports Journalism to give himself a back-up option, but says he’s far from finished with rugby just yet.

“I’d love to get back home to play at some stage with one of the provinces,” he says. “But then there’s the chance to go and explore other places too.

“I saw Robin Copeland signed over in France and that sort of things interests me, getting to see the world a bit. The MLR in the US could be an option in the future.

“So I still see rugby as a job that I can hopefully have for a few more years, while setting myself up with something to fall back on.”

* Jersey Reds have reached out to The42 with the following comment: 

The club would like to underline that Mark was provided with personal treatment and support from the time of his injury at the start of November until the point that the Championship season was halted in mid-March. This support then continued in virtual form during March and April for Mark and other players who opted to leave Jersey in the wake of Covid-19. Mark was paid up until the final day of his contract on May 31st, a period of around seven months from the point at which he was injured.

Jersey Reds take pride in the standards of welfare that is provided to all players, notably those recovering from injury. During our time in the Greene King IPA Championship, no player has been released as a consequence of a 12-week injury clause in their contract, other than in exceptional circumstances. Several team-mates of Mark’s from the 2019/20 squad, who will remain with the club next season, have expressed their appreciation for the support they have received in recovering from serious injuries that had kept them out of action for prolonged periods.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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