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'The entire row flipped and broke, but no one gave a shit because Gordon Hamilton scored'

The captain’s Lansdowne Road memories go back far beyond his full debut in 2006.

general-view-of-lansdowne-road Lansdowne Road in November 2006, the night Best made his first start for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

FOR ALL THE journeys he has made to Lansdowne Road, today’s will stick out in Rory Best’s memory for a long time to come.

The 37-year-old, after upwards of 120 international caps and 221 more for Ulster, will hang up his boots after the Rugby World Cup in Japan next month. With any luck, there will be a lot of rugby still to be played before Ireland’s tournament comes to an end, just not at the Aviva Stadium.

He will be back at the home of Irish rugby after today, completing a circle that began when his age was still in single digits, but it will never be the same as these matchdays when he has laced up, strapped up and fronted up in white and in green.

He has led Ireland, shed blood and suffered broken bones for Ireland. From day one – or as close to day one as he can remember – his own safety was a long way down his list of priorities at this venue.

“I remember sitting in the old West Stand when Gordon Hamilton scored in the corner,” Best says, bringing himself back to the 1991 World Cup quarter-final when he was nine years old.

“We had to stand on the old wooden, rickety seats just to see down into the corner. I just remember the entire row just flipped and broke, but no one gave a shit because Gordon Hamilton just scored.”

As with that iconic score, there’s no need to dig far to find the highlights of Best’s time on home turf with Ireland. Beating New Zealand, wins over England and the day of his 100th cap was marked by a superb display in a gutsy win over Australia. His first Test start came at the venue too, and the fear induced by a wobbly opening before a convincing win over South Africa has stuck with him.

“We’d actually throw line-outs (the morning of a Test) which now seems ridiculous but then was just the norm.

“I just remember waking up in the morning and the weather was horrific and I’m there going, ‘why, on my first start, does this have to be so bad?’

“Throwing line-outs at Blackrock school or somewhere, the ball went about two metres, and then – woof! – it was blowing all over the place. The first line-out in the game was exactly the same and I remember going ‘oh my God, what am I going to do?’ And then (Springbok hooker) John Smit’s ball did exactly the same.

rory-best-and-pierre-spies Best helps push Pierre Spies over the line in 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It’s funny how little things like that make you relax a little bit. I don’t know if he had 100 (caps) then, but he was very close to it. He was the captain and whenever he did it you go ‘oh right OK’. And it ended up we won most of the rest of them, I settled into the game and felt good about it.”

“Those memories stand out, the Croke Park games were phenomenal, especially the England game…  the home games, it’s just a fantastic place to play, whether it was Lansdowne Road, whether it was Croke Park, whether it was the Aviva now or that World Cup game against France at the Millennium which felt like a home game.

“Ultimately I think those are the things you’ll miss.

“Coming off the pitch there (in Carton House) and someone’s going, ‘I can’t believe you won’t train there again’. There is part of you going ‘thank God for that!’

“Coming back here in January, February, March when the weather’s horrific and the pitch is not great underfoot and you’re just there going ‘why?’

“But you’ll miss jumping on the bus, leaving the Shelbourne and the atmosphere around that, when you drive past all of the pubs.”

rory-best Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One last bus trip then, beyond O’Donoghue’s, past Foley’s, Doheny and Nesbitt’s and the namesake of his favourite long-term line-out target, Toner’s. Then it will be in under the weight of steel, concrete and glass of the new stadium for one last competitive run out.

And that is where the focus lays for the Poyntzpass man. Because at 37, he can’t afford to ease off the pedal now when the defining tournament is so close at hand and Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin continue to stake strong claims for the number 2 jersey.

As captain, the hooker drew a disproportionate level of the criticism flung Ireland’s way after the shellacking in Twickenham.

His age makes it easy to attach a number to a sub-par performance. His imminent retirement encourages calls for the fast-forward button. However, slow starts are a necessary evil for most long-in-the-tooth athletes. Best has grown accustomed to the double-edged sword that comes with a long career and he has his own numbers to offer answers.

“When you turn 30 and certainly get towards 32 or 33 those questions are being asked. I am in the lucky-unlucky position that it has now been three or four years of those questions being asked.

Sometimes you have to go right back and ask, ‘where did I finish with my fitness?’ and ‘where did I finish in the conditioning games?’ and mark all the involvements and you can see that, ‘if anything I am actually better than I was 12 months ago’.

“You just have to find that confidence. The beauty of it is that my game, right back to my first cap in ’05, revolved around speed. It has never revolved around speed for me but speed of thought.

“Did I do enough to make sure that mentally I can be a yard quicker than somebody that is quicker that me? Maybe not. Maybe in the first game it was the heat and everything but you have to trust that you have the ability to do it and physically I think I do.

rory-best Hitting his markers. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Mentally, there is no point having all this experience if you just throw it out.”

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Best won’t and Schmidt won’t. The coming weeks will give the hooker a chance to round off a remarkable list of achievements as an Ireland captain: a Grand Slam-winner, skipper through a 12-game winning streak, the first to lead a win over the All Blacks and the second too.

The bubble at their Maynooth base is not as impermeable as some would have you believe, but Ireland are confident that their own high standards will be delivered again. Win or Learn.

“When you’re sat there in a team meeting, everyone is aware that we haven’t been near the standard we want. You feel that you’ve let yourself down, let the other people in the room down. Everyone gets cranky.”

Some of the special times have been coming back from adversity, from people doubting you. Everyone knows a really talented player who just didn’t make it but maybe that’s because they couldn’t handle that. I think the bad games, you have to look back with pride over how you dealt with them, the lessons you learned.”

The most important lesson? Work harder. 

“I remember a Scotland game at Croke Park, and they were all over us and we couldn’t win it. It was a combination of everything but being a hooker you take a lot of the flak for it. I put that on myself too.

“I didn’t have the confidence because, when things went badly, I hadn’t practiced enough that I could go back and trust the throws I’d done. That was a big lesson to me and I really upped the amount of practice I do.

“It’s hard in the middle of a game to think like that but when you get away you can go ‘I’ve done X amount of throws in a week’ and you can stand over that.

“I’ll do practice today, I’ll do  more tomorrow and, when I’m bricking it on Saturday, when I get a moment, that’s the sort of thing you can reflect on. That it’s through the adversity that you get to there. If I hadn’t had that bad day, I’d just keep doing what I was doing and thinking that everything would be okay.”

Schmidt, who also makes his final bow at the Aviva today, has offered words words of support too. The Kiwi is famed for his sharp criticism and being a stickler for detail, but he gave Best a boost by reminding him that he brings more to the table, or indeed the floor, for Ireland than just line-out throwing.

“He felt I’d done a couple of clean-outs, a couple of good carries and it gives you a little bit of confidence. I know deep down that I didn’t throw well. We talked about other aspects of the line-out but I know that I didn’t throw well anyway.”

When it comes time, when Sean Cronin comes off the bench this afternoon or when Ireland meet their fate in Japan, Best’s miscued throws on a hot August day won’t be near the top of anyone’s memory of the man.

The assumption is Best will hang up the boots and take wellies off the shelf and focus his time on the farm, maybe in the spring. There’ll be no need to rush to anything bar a holiday after his 14 years of playing international rugby.

Indeed, his connection with the game, with this team, goes back much longer than that. Best echoed a sentiment of Paul O’Connell’s this week in revealing that he has sometimes longed to be on the other side of the bus’s window. To taste a cool pint and lean against a wall while the squad rolls on by, growing more tense by the metre.

Soon he can be a fan again, and relish all the trimmings around a big game on Lansdowne Road rather than always being stuck with his head in some dark place within the heart of it.

To be honest, at the start, I used to go down mainly because we stopped at The Monasterboice for steak on the way home.

“I did enjoy my rugby but I liked to watch it on TV and then go out and play a bit in the garden, come back and watch a bit more, go out and play a bit.

“When you went to Lansdowne Road, you didn’t get the option to go out and play, but there is no doubt that the incentive of the steak got me down.

“Look, when you are down there with your family, you get hooked. I suppose we have been going down as a family since I was four or five. There has been some wonderful memories there and then we have created some wonderful memories on the pitch, which I never thought I would.

“Now with the kids coming onto the pitch, they have obviously had a different experience than I had growing up.

“I am lucky enough that I have played long enough that they are old enough that they will actually remember loads about being me involved with Ireland.

rory-best-celebrates-winning-with-his-children-ben-richie-and-penny Best celebrates winning against France this year with his children Ben, Richie and Penny. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I suppose that’s one of the decisions you make when you have kids a wee bit younger. That’s what you want for them. By hook or by crook, I hung around long enough so that they could remember it.”

“When you drive passing all the pubs. When you’re sitting on the bus and you’re so nervous and you’re looking out going, ‘what I wouldn’t give to be sat there with a pint and not worrying about this.’

“But when you’re in the game, and you know that everyone there would give their right arm to swap with you. But when you’re sitting there, in that moment of weakness, and there’s the fear.

“When you’re in the game, there’s nowhere you’d rather be.”

And he’ll be there for a few more yet.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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