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'There's a real emphasis on if somebody speaks with a non-Irish accent, they must be better at rugby than us'

The former Ulster and Ireland captain believes the enjoyment has been taken out of rugby.

Rory Best is pictured with his children Ben (9), Penny (7) and Richie (4) alongside their grandfather John.
Rory Best is pictured with his children Ben (9), Penny (7) and Richie (4) alongside their grandfather John.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A THIRD AND final appearance in the famous black and white of the Barbarians last weekend finally brought the curtain down on Rory Best’s career as a professional rugby player.

His next move is anybody’s guess, but his experience with the laid-back Barbarians reinforced a feeling that Best has held has closely for some time now. The fun has been sucked out of rugby.

No, Best isn’t calling for Test sides to take a more casual approach to the game, but the former Ireland captain does believe that the sport could be doing more to keep players involved, and it is something he is keen to play his part in.

“I think I would like to stay involved in rugby in some shape or form, because I have some reasonably strong views on rugby and how it should go, and to make sure it evolves the right way,” Best says.

“And that obviously involves that enjoyment side of it, to make sure that we realise it is a sport. It might not necessarily be donning a tracksuit to do that, but it might be from a managerial point of view, or a committee or whatever. I feel that rugby has given me so much and that it’s probably the least I can do to give a little bit back.” 

Item number one on Best’s list of grievances: the lack of opportunities for Irish coaches in Ireland.

“I just think that within Ireland there needs to be more, and it’s probably more within Ulster, that there needs to be more of an emphasis on the pathway. And not just for players, but for coaches. I think there’s a real emphasis on if somebody speaks with an accent, a non-Irish accent, that they must be better at rugby than us.

“I think that there needs to be a big push away from that, and the same with the coaches. I think Joe Schmidt’s legacy will obviously be the trophies that he has won with Leinster and Ireland, but I think with the detail and the preparation that he has shown players to do, if we can get some players that have either worked with him or that he has talked to with his many trips around to various clubs… If we can get people that can learn from that and if we can get a pathway put in place to allow a coach [develop]. Not to allow a coach go from a school, to a club, to U20s to then go ‘Right there’s a head coach opening, we’re going to bring in a New Zealander’, it’s to sort of allow… Like, New Zealand have been the best team in the world for years, and they have all these pathways. They don’t go, ‘Well that fella has got an Irish accent, he must be class, we’ll bring him in.’ 

rory-best-after-being-subbed-off Best's last game for Ireland was the World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s got to be something that we have got to look to do. And in fairness, Leinster probably have a reasonably good blueprint of that.”

Best, who also spoke about his frustrations with Ireland’s 2019 campaign, is also not happy with the way things are being done at underage level in Ireland. During the course of our conversation, he uses the word ‘pressure’ time and time again.

“We’re very quick to try and put structure on things, and you have mini-teams practicing moves and set-plays, and you’re kind of there going ‘Let the kids play!’ Best continues.

“Because all that [set-play] will be at the backs, and then you’ll get a kid who is maybe a wee bit bigger and go ‘Right, you’re a prop,’ and it’s almost ‘You don’t need to worry about catching the ball, you just go and wait over there.’ Whereas if you could get to a stage of say 14 [years old], where everyone has got a really really good skill-set, or they have certainly been given the opportunity to have an equal skill-set, that’s where the fun comes from. And when you start to get fun, and when somebody is confident in an environment, that’s when you’ll get more from them.

“I think the more that we can just encourage fun, ball in your hand, be comfortable with the ball in your hand, it’s ok to make mistakes, don’t worry about mistakes, that’s what you learn from, and get an environment like that, instead of this ‘You have to be in this position at this time to make sure you catch this, and if you drop it we’re in trouble.’ 

“When you get to professional rugby it has to be like that, because ultimately it is about results and it is a business, but before that we’re very very quick to pigeon hole players. We hear things like ‘Oh, he’s a good player but he’s a bit flakey,’ and the guy is 16. Is he flakey? Or does he just need a little bit of help with the mental side of it, to make sure that he flourishes in the right environment rather than being nervous and snatching at things.

“I have two boys that play, and it’s a wee bit different because they are not at that stage yet, but I look at them [other kids] now at 14,15, and it’s sort of ‘Right, well here’s the pathway,’ and it is almost like ‘Here is the end goal.’ I’d like to think that part of my longevity is down to the fact that I was still going out because I loved it. I’d like to think that I was one of the last people off the training pitch for Ireland, and that’s because you want to get better, but it’s ultimately because you love kicking a ball around. And you don’t want that to be lost. That doesn’t just happen, that’s grown from a young age when it was just about the enjoyment.

“You don’t want too much pressure, these kids have enough to deal with with all sorts of stuff that maybe we didn’t have to when we were their age. You don’t want ‘having to do X, Y and Z or else you’re not going to be a professional rugby player’ to be one of those things.”

Best believes the problem largely lies with the gap between the pro and amateur game in Ireland. 

“I don’t think you ever want to ruin a kid’s dream of playing professional rugby. But there has got to be a safety net under that, where say you’ve been told from the age of 15 that you’re going to play professional rugby, and then at 19 you’re told by an academy that you are no good anymore. Rather that just going ‘Ah, to pot with this,’ and going off and just getting a job, most people then if they still like rugby will go ‘You know, I’ll just and have a beer and watch it.’

“[We need] To get a safety net where you have a really good club game underneath it that can catch that, and go ‘You know what, here’s a system that will allow you to keep playing, enjoy yourself, have your pint and have your fun,’ but also it’s of a good enough standard where… not everyone develops equally. You might be 22 and playing the best rugby you’ve ever played, and you’ve been picked up by that safety net and are capable of coming back in [to the professional game] again.”

Rugby player Rory Best is an ambassador for Specsavers Audiologists’ Grandparent of the Year 2019 Award, celebrating the extraordinary contribution that grandparents make to the lives of grandchildren and the community. For more information visit www.specsavers.ie/hearing/grandparent

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