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'That's the great thing about this Irish team, it's about an island performing'

As he reflects on his career, Rory Best takes pride from squeezing every drop out of the potential he had.

JOE SCHMIDT SUMS it up succinctly in the foreword of Rory Best’s new book when he says that the former Ireland captain “exemplifies the qualities of those who don’t achieve easily but through effort.”

Reflecting on a career that saw him earn 124 Ireland caps, captain his country to a Grand Slam, tour with the Lions twice, and play for his native Ulster 218 times, it’s that sense that he squeezed every drop out of his potential that gives Best most pride.

Throughout Rory Best: My Autobiography, we get a sense of the now-retired Best’s insecurities and self-doubts. He calls himself “a rather shy fat lad from Poyntzpass” early on.

rory-best Best played for Ulster 218 times. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But sitting in Dublin this week to discuss his career, Best explained that those insecurities he carried were actually a positive force.

“It’s something that is greatly undervalued and underestimated – that mental aspect of it, that mindset that even if you lose, it won’t be from a lack of willingness to hang in there until the bitter end,” said Best.

“I was worried going through the book that people would think I had no confidence in my ability and that is was self-deprecating but it’s about how you use it as motivation.

“Some people walk into a room and think they’re the best player there. I would walk in and think, ‘Right, someone might take my spot today but I’m going to give absolutely everything I have to stop that.’

“I played with so many people from Ireland Schools right through to the 2019 quarter-final and especially at underage, you see some incredibly talented people and end up wondering how they didn’t make it in the end.

“Ultimately, they reach a junction with injury or something and they mentally couldn’t get past it. I always tried to use the bumps in the road to make me better. I don’t think I could have done a whole lot more in rugby.”

Best’s career officially ended after playing with the Barbarians last November, although he was very nearly tempted to play on for a few more months when Pat Lam’s Bristol offered him a contract.

It was an enticing offer after the disappointment of Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final failure against New Zealand, but ultimately it was Best’s eldest son, Ben, who made his decision to turn the Premiership club down easy.

“Ben said he was ready to have Dad at home. I’d put myself first for 15-odd years.”

And so it is that Best is over four months into life post-rugby, admitting he’s physically happy to be out of it. He felt pangs of sympathy watching “some of my really good friends” losing to England two weekends ago and didn’t envy them the inevitable pressure that followed.

Best was not a glamorous rugby player, but he was valued greatly by his team-mates and coaches of the quality of Schmidt, whose confidence in the hooker kept him playing through several patches when he seriously considered retiring.

rory-best-leaves-the-field-after-the-game Best after his final home game for Ireland last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Best wasn’t an explosive ball-carrier nor was he capable of throwing eye-catching offloads. Instead, his game was about being ruthlessly accurate and busy at rucks, scrummaging ferociously, and nailing his lineout throwing.

“The competition with Jerry Flannery earlier on was important and that was exaggerated when Sean Cronin came in because I was never going to be as fast as him,” said Best of how his competitive edge was vital.

“I asked myself if I could be smarter with the lines I ran, being a second ahead in my thinking. It started with Jerry, who was and still is a freak in how he trains. He was hard, strong, a really good athlete – and I wasn’t at that stage. I was never going to be that kind of Adonis he is but knew that I could be a lot better as an athlete.

“I needed to realise I shouldn’t chase this perfect game with big ball carries. I needed to be the best at what I could do, so I went away and worked really hard on my defence and making turnovers.”

Best quietly and consistently did additional speed work, as well as extras on his ruck and tackle technique throughout his career, while he admits he became “obsessive” with his lineout throwing, starting with 20 or 30 extra throws each day but allowing that to extend out to 100 throws in the final seasons of his career.

As detailed in his book, Best had some off-the-pitch speed bumps early in his career with Ulster, particularly when it came to his fondness for a wild night on the booze. 

There was one stage where he admits he worried that Ulster “were going to get rid of me” but Best quit the booze entirely for a season as he realised he simply didn’t have the talent not to be more dedicated that anyone.

In the later part of his career Best found balance, retaining his amateur values for the big occasions when Ireland, Ulster, or the Lions had achieved something.

“I’m a big believer that if you’re enjoying something, you’ll play better and work harder during the week,” said Best. “At the start, I definitely enjoyed myself too much and it came to that point where I had to become a professional.

“I needed to change, there were a couple of incidents where it wasn’t me and Jodie [his wife] was getting fed up. I made that change and went on a self-imposed ban for the rest of the season.

“You do what felt like the two extremes and then you find a nice balance in the middle.”

A major part of Best’s CV is his Ireland captaincy, which he took on permanently in 2016 following the retirement of Paul O’Connell.

rory-best-talks-to-cian-healy-and-paul-oconnell Best speaks to Paul O'Connell during a game in 2014. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Schmidt as his head coach, Best captained Ireland to a first Test win on South African soil, their first-ever win over New Zealand, a Grand Slam, as well as their second win over New Zealand, this time back in Dublin.

Of course, 2019 was a disaster for Ireland with Best still in position as the official leader and he stresses that he and the other senior players could have done more to ensure last year’s World Cup wasn’t such a disappointment.

Best captained Ireland for the first time in 2012, standing in as skipper for the final two games of the 2012 Six Nations, and his memories of that time make for interesting reading in the book.

He recalls social media messages directed at him questioning why “a fat Protestant” was captaining Ireland, while revealing how “it grated when a tiny minority seemed to view Ulster players as ‘Plastic Paddies’ who lacked the passion or commitment.”

While the criticism bothered him, Best is now in a perfect position to judge the positives of how Ireland’s rugby team is an all-island side composed of players from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“It is unique and it’s hard to put into words,” said Best.

“People talk about how sport transcends a lot of society and that is one of the biggest examples. I talk about getting abused on social media, but then you picture people from Northern Ireland who have played for Ireland before you and a couple of tweets is nothing compared to Nigel Carr and Phillip Matthews and what they went through, guys having their cars checked as they were going down to games.

“That’s the great thing about this Irish team, it’s about an island performing and ultimately often performing greater than the sum of their parts.

“When you’re playing, you don’t look at it as a political statement of any kind. You grew up wanting to represent Ireland and that never changes.”

Best leaves his playing career behind with few regrets but one that stands out is not winning a Lions Test cap on his two tours in 2013 and 2017.

A meltdown with his lineout throwing in a warm-up game against the Brumbies in 2013 cost him on that trip to Australia, while Jamie George and Ken Owens were ahead of him in 2017.

“It’s a regret. I would love to have said I played in a Test, even for a minute somewhere.

rory-best-dejected Best had a tough night against the Brumbies on the 2013 Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“In 2013, I wasn’t in a position to put pressure on because I mentally fell apart a bit, but in a way that made me better for the rest of my career. I wouldn’t swap what we did with Ireland for a Lions Test, but that tour allowed me to respond and springboard off it.

“In 2017, you look at that one throw against the Blues and wonder what might have been if it had gone to hand. But I went on that tour thinking, ‘I want to play a Test but if I don’t, I’m not going to let the other opportunities slip by and be embarrassed like I was in 2013.’”

A veteran of four World Cup campaigns, Best is part of Ireland’s exclusive club of players to have won more than 100 caps along with Ronan O’Gara, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and John Hayes.

His CV is remarkable and captaining Ireland to a Grand Slam will make him a legend forever in many fans’ eyes.

But for others, his name will bring up memories of how he attended the Belfast rape trial in 2018. Best admits “it was incredibly naive” in a chapter of his book dealing with the trial, while he also addressed the issue in depth in an interview with Off the Ball recently.

Asked if the criticism he faced on social media at that time extended into real life in his face-to-face interactions with the public, Best was unwilling to discuss the subject.

“With the trial, there are five people trying to get on with their lives and I’d rather not talk about it. There’s a chapter in the book and that’s really all I want to say on it.”

Best does clearly have a huge number of supporters. Our interview is interrupted by an elderly couple asking for a photograph, with Best happily obliging, and he says he only encountered kindness upon returning from the World Cup.

“After I got home, I was dropping the kids into school and I was almost embarrassed about letting the country down,” he said. “That was maybe based on some of the more extreme journalism around it and I remember walking through the school with my head down.

“As I was leaving, an old woman came down the street and was shouting after me, and I thought the worst but she said, ‘We’re so proud of you.’ I started apologising for it but she stopped me and was nice.

“The Irish sporting public just want you to do your best and sometimes you lose sight of that. We get so obsessed with results, then there is sensationalist journalism calling for heads, and you sometimes lose sight of that.” 

With his body in decent nick – although his knee has started troubling him since he stopped playing – Best is grateful for what rugby has given him and proud of what he achieved without the talents that some of his team-mates possessed.

rory-best-with-his-daughter-penny-and-son-ben-after-the-game Best with his daughter, Penny, and son, Ben. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In the foreword of the book, Schmidt jokes that Best “loves to masquerade as a down-to-earth farmer” but the Ulster man insists he has been back on the family farm since retiring. 

He misses being around close friends in the rugby environment every day but is relishing the extra time with his three children and Jodie.

And the sense is that he will return to rugby, although not as an on-field coach. By the sound of things, Best is eyeing up a director of rugby-style role in the future.

“I don’t know that I want to pull on a tracksuit and coach every day but I want to be involved. I’m still trying to figure out what that would look like and I was actually talking to Joe about it,” he said.

“I have some thoughts on how you could almost be like a football manager, the mentorship and man management, the long-term strategic planning for players or a team.

“You could work with the coaches, getting your daily, weekly reports, that type of thing. I haven’t even got it right in my own head but that’s what I like – the strategy, mentoring, man management. That’s what I love doing.

“Whether it’s in a professional, semi-professional, or even a volunteer role, I don’t know, but I’d like to think I have something to give to rugby.

“But equally, I have a lot to give back to rugby.”

Rory Best will be signing copies of his new book – which is published in hardback by Hodder – in Easons on O’Connell St in Dublin on Saturday 7 March at 10am and Easons in Belfast on Sunday 8 March at 1.30pm. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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