Dan Sheridan/INPHO The curtain fell on Best's rugby career on Saturday in Tokyo.
best man

Rory Best can bow out of rugby as one of Ireland's great captains

The hooker steps away after a quarter-final disappointment, but in his 124 caps he created so many reasons for Irish fans to hope and aim for better.

RORY BEST TELLS the story with a loving clarity that has surely been refined in the re-telling.

It’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final day, he’s nine years old and straining to see above the shoulders rising in front of him as a roar engulfs Lansdowne Road with Gordon Hamilton haring away to score in the left corner of the Havelock End.

“We had to stand on the old wooden, rickety seats just to see down into the corner,” Best reminisced of his day in the west stand for his first taste of the World Cup. “I just remember the entire row just flipped and broke, but no one gave a shit because Gordon Hamilton just scored.”

Although the Wallabies quickly turned the tables to snatch victory from the jaws of the hosts, the rampaging try of an Ulster forward made an impression that seared deep into the future captain of Ireland.

“We came back from that match,” Simon Best tells The42 as he looks towards his front lawn, “and for the next month or year he was running up and down there being Gordon Hamilton.”

“He probably hasn’t forgotten that either. Now that he’s playing for Ireland, he’ll do everything he can to inspire the next generation. (Earlier we were) talking about leadership and that’s another thing: selfless. You do everything you can to help others. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid in the street, he’d stop and has time for everybody.

“It comes back to little points growing up when we were inspired by guys like that.”

28 years on from being caught up in the chaos of that brave effort on Lansdowne Road, Best bowed out of rugby after starting a third World Cup quarter-final of his own.

And while he must now depart Japan frustrated at having not landed a glove on New Zealand and falling short of a first semi-final, the hooker must reflect on a remarkable term of service as captain and player.

rory-best-after-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

In 14 years of international rugby he amassed 124 caps for his country. A mark only surpassed by Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara. 12 tries scored is not a number to do him justice, look instead towards his near ever-present status in Ireland teams for the games that matter. Since the midway point of the 2010 Six Nations he has played in 45 of Ireland’s 47 matches in the Championship. Two rests in a decade, both were against Italy.

No player who spends so long at the pinnacle of his national team will escape criticism and as a line-out operator his errors tend to take more of a spotlight than any other position that does not involve goal-kicking.

Yet it is through the last four years of rugby that Best truly distinguished himself. While a trophy as captain of Ulster proved agonisingly elusive, he retires as one of the great Irish captains having led this team to a Grand Slam success and to a first and second-ever win over New Zealand.

Those sweet, breakthrough victories may feel distant now in the aftermath of a World Cup knockout, but they are crucial cornerstones that will remain as a platform of possibility when Andy Farrell sets about reconstructing the senior side. Words count for less than on-field actions, but Best’s proclamation ahead of that 2016 encounter in Chicago played a part in setting the tone for a historic feat.

We’ve got to respect them, but we can’t go out and fear them. We’ve got to go out and have our gameplan, stick to it rigidly and ultimately beat the All Blacks.”

Although it would have been richly and utterly deserved if Best were to instead play his last match on the final weekend, in some way it’s fitting that it ends against those fabled black jerseys, precisely where it all started.

It was November 2005 when Best first ran into an international fixture. The way he tells it, it was something of a false start after he hopped up and stripped down only for the realisation to dawn that it was, in fact, Neil Best who was being called on — the self-deprecating wit is a common feature of his engaging stories.

His time did came, with just four minutes remaining in place of Shane Byrne and, boy, did Best make his time in green count.

It was another All Black encounter which threw up the best snapshot of Best’s sheer guts and heroism. In the thrilling 2013 Test that kick-started a rivalry, the clock read just 13.40 when Best – having scored to help the hosts open a 14-0 lead – suffered a broken forearm when tackling Steven Luatua.

Three phases later, he was still on his feet, standing alert in Ireland’s defensive line and proceeded to hit a ruck before play was stopped and the medics came on.

rory-best-scores-his-sides-second-try James Crombie / INPHO Best dives for the try-line against New Zealand in 2013. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

‘Leading by example’, doesn’t quite seem to do it justice. Best brought that and more. He isn’t short on words to stir, convince, focus or calm a body nearby, but his is a quiet authority. His leadership of this squad has been based on deep-rooted respect among his peers and he can convey a point as effectively with a look, or the raise of a familiar eyebrow, as he can with a sentence and an outstretched palm.

“Rory’s built this aura or a presence around him,” says Jacob Stockdale.

Whenever you’re listening to him in the changing rooms, he doesn’t need to scream and shout. You just listen to him, because you know he’s going to do what he says he is. You just need to do it yourself.”

“He’s a brilliant leader. Mainly because what he talks about, he does on the pitch. If you’re talking about being incredibly physical, you can bet he’s going to be the one smashing lads. If you want energy, he’ll be the one shouting and running about the pitch.”

That sort of ‘act first’ mentality is combined with a relentless tenacity and resilience of intent. Those qualities, his big brother Simon suggests, were forged even before the hooker decided to channel all his energy into rugby.

“Being the third son was a tough run for him,” says Simon Best gravely.

“Maybe that’s a bit of a cliché, but Mark and I would be fairly strong characters to grow up under. He had to fight his corner. It was probably tough for him,” he says before adding with a smile, “maybe it’s helped him. The resilience in his character, definitely helps in that end.”

Watching his own children meander about the same patch of grass where two Ireland captains once started out, Best looks back on Rory’s phase of, not rebelliousness exactly, but an unwillingness to follow meekly along.

While Simon progressed through every step up through Banbridge and Ulster schools as a new experience, the prospect facing Rory was to follow the footsteps, perhaps forever trying to match up to the bar set by his brothers.

rory-best Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“The older kids get a jump on you because they’re that bit stronger. They do all the things first, be it rugby or golf or whatever. Rory had to watch that and decide whether he was going to follow or not.

“It took him a while, probably, to decide. He loved rugby, and he loved rugby as much as we did. Once he got into school and started taking it seriously, that’s when he started to come through.

“He had the talent… there’s a time when you’ve to decide: do I want to follow the line or not. He decided to follow the line and then just keep driving on past it.”

Driving to 124 international caps, nine Lions appearances and 218 provincial games with Ulster. A phenomenal amount of rugby matches, each one left with the imprint of Best’s supreme breakdown work, powerful tackling, under-appreciated passing and line-outs.

“He’s head of the pile,” exclaimed Willie Anderson when we ask him to rank Best in the pantheon of Ulster captains. He’s seen a few of them.

“Great team-mate,” says Best’s predecessor as Ireland skipper Brian O’Driscoll.

“He would have been one of the few who had a throwback to playing with guys who played amateur. He’s probably the last of them. He was a great player on the pitch, turned into a great leader and he was great fun off the pitch as well.

“He’s left a great legacy with his performances for the national team, particularly in more recent years. His record as captain and what Ireland have managed to achieve in the last three years is spectacular.

“For him still to be number one (in his position) shows the calibre of player he is. In that position, it’s quite something. I’m sure he wakes up the morning after Test matches and takes a couple of minutes to unwind and swing the legs out of bed and get the body moving.”

This morning in Tokyo he would have moved slower than normal. When he limbers up and works out the pain lingering in his bruised 37-year-old body, he can take solace in a team well-led, a career well-played and another generation of Irish rugby watchers inspired to pick up the ball, just as Hamilton inspired him.

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