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'In 12 months' time kids will walk straight past you, and their Dad will be saying 'Do you know who that is there?''

Rory Best on learning to be himself as Ireland captain, legacy, and talking Brexit with Joe Schmidt.

Rory Best leaves the pitch for the final time as Ireland captain.
Rory Best leaves the pitch for the final time as Ireland captain.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated Dec 7th 2019, 10:00 AM

RORY BEST FOUND himself in a rather unusual situation. 

As the World Cup inquest began, Ireland’s captain was able to wipe his hands and walk away, watching the fallout from a safe distance. After a short break, the rest of the squad went back to their provinces and knuckled down. The now former head coach released a book and sat down for a number of interviews. The IRFU dug into a review of a tournament which was far more damaging than simply failing to reach a first semi-final. As all this was unfolding, Best was nowhere to be seen.

The curtain fell on his international career with that harrowing quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Japan. A sorry end to a gutting season for Joe Schmidt’s team. With no club game to return to, Best shielded himself from the initial post-mortem by joining a number of team-mates on a couples holiday in Dubai, before an equally soul-soothing sojourn with the Barbarians. While the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton were back home facing up to questions about another quarter-final exit, Best was kicking conversions in Sao Paulo.  

It is only in the last week he has returned to reality, arriving back home on Sunday after the Barbarians’ defeat to Wales in Cardiff the day beforehand. This has been his first full week at home in almost six months. Yet Best has resisted the temptation to just put his feet up. Only a few days after unpacking his Barbarians kitbag he travelled down to Dublin and spoke in depth for the first time about the World Cup. To his credit, Best was more open and more honest than anyone else we’re heard from, including Schmidt himself. It bodes well for Best’s own autobiography, due to be released in March. 

After listening to Best reveal his personal regrets, what he believes Andy Farrell will bring to the table and his frustration with the pathways available for players and coaches in Ireland, The42 sat down with the 124-time international to get his thoughts on stepping away from the Ireland captaincy, and how it changed his relationship with the most successful head coach Ireland has ever had. 

Our conversation took Best back to a brief phone call four years ago. 

“We always try to have dinner together at the table. We had just put the dinner out and were just about to take the first mouthful and the phone rang,” Best says. 

rory-best-dejected-after-the-game Best retired following Ireland's Rugby World Cup exit. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Normally I have it on silent, and when I picked it up of course I got the death stare from Jodie. I hit silent but looked at it, and held it across to her. She looked and said ‘Oh, maybe take this one,’ so I nipped down into my wee office at back of the house. It was Joe. He goes ‘Sorry for ringing so late, but this is the nicest of the three conversations I have had today. I’ve just met Johnny [Sexton] and Jamie [Heaslip] and told them the news that in the vote you came out on top.’  

“Then he goes ‘Oh, sorry, I’m assuming that you’re happy to take the captaincy. We’d love you to be captain.’ 

“Because I held Joe in such high regard, I was kind of trying to hold back how excited and emotional I was about it. It was like ‘Oh yeah Joe, that would be a big honour, thanks.’ I think I must have said ‘That will be a big honour, thanks,’ about 10 times.

“That was maybe early January and Joe said ‘We’re not going to make a big deal of it, we’re going to name the squad in two weeks and just put a ‘C’ beside your name, and that’s it. We don’t want to put more pressure on by making a big [deal of it.] We’d appreciate it if you keep it quiet, I’m sure you want to tell Jodie and that but [keep it quiet].’ 

“So we told Ben [Best’s eldest son], because he was just about old enough, and he went bananas. He thought it was great. We told him he couldn’t tell anyone. He had just started primary school, and he came home [the next day] and said ‘I just told Charlotte.’ I though OK, I’m sure Charlotte is not going to tell anyone, don’t worry. Then it was ‘I’ve just told Jason,’ and ‘I’ve just told so and so,’ and every day it was another kid. I told him not to tell any more and he said ‘I’m trying Dad, I’m trying!’

“But that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?” 

Initially Best struggled to wrap his around what type of captain he wanted to be. He had spent years sitting in dressing rooms watching Paul O’Connell’s famously intense speeches whip his teammates to an emotional pitch. Brian O’Driscoll didn’t carry the same authority with his voice – few do – but could balance that off the fact he was the most gifted Irish player of his generation.  

A private person by nature, Best took time to strike the right balance. As a young Ulster player he moved out of Belfast to seek the solace and privacy of the countryside. Now he was front and centre at team meetings, and the focal point for Schmidt’s Ireland on the pitch. 

“I think the difference with it is what you put on yourself,” he explains.  

“After that initial ecstasy you kind of go ‘Right OK, now I have to be this inspirational leader.’ When actually you are picked to be captain because of who you are and what you do, not what they want you to be. But it is hard to kind of differentiate the two.  

“I remember going down to the first meeting going ‘How am I going to produce something, how am I going to inspire Johnny Sexton or Peter O’Mahony or Jamie [Heaslip] here?’ Then you realise, in time, just to be yourself and whatever way you run it, people, especially the Irish team, they will row in behind you. But that does take a little bit of time. And I’d like to think in those last couple of years that I had plenty of input into the team.  

“But when you feel you are that figurehead, it changes the way you feel about it at the start, until you actually, with experience and time, just relax and be yourself. When you need to speak, speak, but don’t feel you have to speak. Silence isn’t a bad thing within a squad either sometimes.” 

ireland-training-session-and-press-conference-carton-house Best addresses the squad during an Ireland training session in 2017. Source: Niall Carson

Silence also peppered plenty of Best’s new obligations as captain. As the squad’s leader, he found himself required to join Schmidt for official team media duties.  

“You spend a bit more time with him and you actually get to see more and more of what he does and how he works, and you get to know him a little bit more as a person,” Best says.  

“If you’re travelling to a Six Nations launch, you’re away with him for just over 24 hours.  

“It is [strange the first few times]. Ultimately, you’d liken it to going somewhere with your principal or your teacher. You’re kind of going ‘I don’t want to say anything wrong here,’ or you don’t want to drop any of the other players in it for what they did or are doing. But as time goes by you realise that while he was a principal [before becoming a coach], that’s not the way it is and you have a different relationship, there’s trust there and all of that.” 

It was on these trips where Best began to see a more human side to Schmidt. Whereas previously their conversations had almost exclusively focused on rugby, the extended time together saw them slowly branch out into more everyday topics.  

“Even Joe can’t talk about rugby for every single minute that he’s awake,” Best continues.

“So you chat a little bit more and find some common ground. I’ve always found him a great coach and a great person, and he’s good company to be around. I think some captains dread going to those [launches] because you have to spend time with the coach, whereas I really enjoyed it. 

“He likes to slag me about farming and living on a farm. Farming would be a common ground because his sister or his brother-in-law has a farm. You chat a bit about family. Joe knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. He reads a lot and he keeps up to date with current affairs. Brexit was one. I think generally if there was anything where he could slag me [about farming]… he enjoyed slagging me about it.” 

joe-schmidt-and-rory-best-after-the-game Joe Schmidt and Rory Best after the former Ireland captain's final home game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Best hasn’t got used to referring to his rugby career in the past tense just yet. New Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is currently mulling over the best option to succeed Best as captain, and while his leadership will be missed on the Test stage, Ulster have also lost a huge amount of experience in the dressing room with one swoop. For the first time in over 15 years, Best won’t spend his weekends pulling on an Ulster jersey.  

Instead he is now the owner of a season ticket. He is not the only one in the Best household struggling to adapt to the change. A touch of jet-lag following a long flight from Brazil twinned with a horribly wet night in Belfast saw him watch Ulster’s Champions Cup defeat of Clermont last month from the comfort of his couch. Instead his father, John, brought Best’s oldest son, Ben, to the game. It was the first time in the nine-year-old’s life that he didn’t enjoy the perks of being a senior player’s son.  

“He goes ‘Oh Dad, it was great. You know it was a perfect night for you,’” Best smiles. 

“I asked ‘What do you mean by that?’ And he goes ‘Oh like it was the sort of night where you would have got man of the match.’ So I’m there going ‘Oh brilliant, thanks, so basically the weather was a leveling factor for everyone’s skill-set.’ 

“Anyway I said to him it was good that Ulster won, and he said ‘Yeah, but it wasn’t really the same with a big win and not being able to get on the pitch and into the changing rooms,’ and I had to tell him that he’s going to have to get used to that. You could see him put the head down and almost start to well up, but those are the wee bits that we have been so lucky with.  

“Like, when Ben was born we kind of said we’d take him to some of the games because you just don’t know when it’s going to be over and he probably won’t remember any of it. But I didn’t envisage him getting to nine years of age and coming to my fourth World Cup and being so involved in it and the memories he’ll have from it. That’s the beauty of it. The hard thing for them is to adjust to going to a rugby match and not hopping the barrier at the end, going up into the changing room and celebrating with the team and getting on the team bus.” 

The inevitable tour of interviews that will accompany Best’s book launch next year will keep his name in the headlines for a while, but as the Six Nations rumbles along and the Champions Cup reaches the knock-out stages, Best’s role will fade further into the distance. He retires with four Six Nations medals and two Grand Slams to his name, but sport moves on quickly. 

“I am very aware of how quickly the world moves on, and especially now in this digital age. Hopefully it will be a few years, but in 12 months’ time you’re going to have 10 year old kids that will walk straight past you and ask for somebody else’s autograph, and their Dad will be saying ‘Do you know who that is there?’” 

ambassador-rory-best-launches-specsavers-audiologists-grandparent-of-the-year-2019-award Rory Best is pictured with his sons Ben (9), and Richie (4) alongside their grandfather John. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Offers from a number of clubs – including Pat Lam’s Bristol – momentarily tempted him to carry on for another season, but Best says he is content with his decision to retire.

“You know, it has [hit home] but at the same time I’m quite happy about it.  

“I think when you’re not in the middle of it you kind of forget some of the crap things about it like coming out on a cold, wet, miserable day to training and the nerves leading into the game, the pressure leading into the game. You kind of just remember the good bits, which is exactly what you want for memories, but when those are your memories and you’re just recently retired, you’re kind of going ‘I’d love to be back involved in that.’  

“And I know what would have happened. If I had of got back involved in it, it would have been going ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’  

“So from that regard, after 15 and a half years playing professional rugby and everything I achieved, I can look back and go ‘You know what, I can really have no regrets,’ and just move on.” 

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

Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella join Sean Farrell to discuss the most revealing post-World Cup insights yet and preview the December back-to-backs..


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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