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'You realise you’re fit, healthy and have a career to look back on'

A health scare during the 2007 World Cup ended Simon Best’s career, but he is grateful for the chances he got in rugby.

AS THE FULL-TIME whistle blew in Paris, greeted by a triumphant French roar, the men wearing heavy green shirts cast their eyes downward.

Among those rueing the outcome and scratching their heads over where the tournament went awry was Simon Best.

Defeat was being stomached, but nothing else appeared to be out of the ordinary. The replacement prop shook hands, folded in among team-mates and headed for the dressing room already beginning to ponder an almighty salvage job in the final match of the 2007 World Cup’s pool stage.

Yet, for the 29-year-old dual-sided prop, that next Test match – or any pro game – never came.

From the outside looking in, the circumstances of his career-ending injury were deeply concerning, but the window for panic was short for the elder Best brother.

Back in Bordeaux, the rhythm of the World Cup continued along unabated. Best trained with Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad on a Tuesday and was set to again take the 17 jersey for the clash with Argentina.

Wednesday meant a day off, a chance to rest, recuperate and focus on chasing an unlikely result to force qualification. Breaking free of Ireland’s infamously dull training base and meandering around the south-western French city after a coffee with Paddy Wallace, something felt off.

“I started to get a tingling in my fingers, down the right,” Best tells The42.

At 29, Best initially shrugged the discomfort off. Perhaps it was just a muscle twinging or a nerve with overdue complaints about the previous day’s training.

No such luck.

I started to feel a bit numb down the side of my face and then started saying to Paddy, ‘This doesn’t feel right’, and then my speech started to go.”

“I knew what I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t say it.”

Simon Best gets his headshot taken Best taking his 2007 World Cup headshot. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Twelve years on, 12 years retired, Best is thankfully unencumbered by the health scare now. He runs the busy farm in Poyntzpass and comfortably walks the land.

It’s the height of summer when The42 is welcomed to the Best homestead. Perched on a hill overlooking Lough Shark, the heat of the day is eased by strong gusts drafting south-east towards the outline of the Mournes. Best wraps his hardy land-hewn hands around a glass of water. His sons play on the lawn beneath an old oak just as their father and uncles did. A dog wanders the perimeter, keeping a nose out for wildlife.

At 41, Best’s day doesn’t move in unison with the seasons, exactly, but he remembers when it didn’t feel quite as easy-going as it looks at this particular moment.

“You go from being part of a high-performing team, high-performance environment. You have to go back to an environment that’s less week-to-week.

“In sport you gauge yourself on win and lose. When you get out, in life you have to re-calibrate yourself on what actually constitutes a win. 

“It’s great to be back here, but I had to change my outlook I suppose.”

Bowing out of rugby at 29 while peers hammer ever forward can understandably bring deflating moods. Best was grateful that the presence of his younger brother in provincial and national setups ensured the link to his sport was never completely severed.

The connections run on down the rugby pyramid too, with his boyhood club Banbridge latterly becoming an outlet for Best to try his hand at coaching. A refreshing return to the cut and thrust of group dynamics.

“I always said I wouldn’t coach, then I was asked to come along and help the forwards and I loved every minute of it.

“You start to realise that coaching isn’t… you think of it as knowing the game inside out. Coaching is as much as being about part of the team.

“I got a lot out of that from my own personal development and perspective.”

“Not as hands-on (now), but I’m working in the background, working with players. I enjoy mentoring the coaches, actually.”

Simon Best Training in France Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The idea of Best as a mentor sits very snugly indeed. Any house on the island would be proud to boast that it had produced a captain of its province. The bricks and mortar rising above us now been home to two captains of Ireland.

The elder of them raises a familiar eyebrow and creases his forehead with some bafflement when asked why that is. But he soon finds the trail that leads to his father John.

“Growing up we were always encouraged to be responsible for our actions.

“You’re in a farming environment, you see first-hand the effort that goes in. Through our dad firstly and then through the guys who work on the farm and help us out. Being immersed in that from an early age, it shows you how to take responsibility for yourself. I guess we were quite responsible for our actions quite early on.

“Taking responsibility and encouraging others to follow you a bit in that respect.  I suppose that’s setting a good example.

“I never felt… Rory leads the way as a player, but for me, I was never the greatest player or the most talented. But I always made sure I worked as hard as I could.

“I suppose, commitment. The only thing I tangibly tried to do is I tried to put the team first, I think, regardless of whether I was in the team or out of the team.

Sometimes that counts for you and sometimes it doesn’t. Because you look back and think, maybe I should have shouted a bit more when you’re not getting picked. But I always had it ground into me that the team was more important.

“If you look at how Rory captains, maybe the way I did before him, that was an element that I don’t think anyone could question us on. Once we set that in stone, whatever comes up, at least you know you have people respecting that end.”

In a previous interview, where he was asked to speak more about his farm than his physical exploits on the field, Best summed up his father’s influence with the word integrity. We remind him of that.

“Integrity is something that’s in us,” he says smiling at the word that wouldn’t come to mind a minute before. “If you don’t expect others to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, that’s probably the foundation we were all brought up on. 

“And honesty.”

“There’s a lot of different types of leaders. I don’t think there’s any magic bullet.

“Sometimes they’re the best player on the pitch, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re the people behind the scenes. Sometimes the best leaders aren’t the captain of the side.

Former captain Simon Best Best watches from the stands after announcing his retirement in 2008. Source: PRESSEYE/INPHO

“Leadership is sometimes talked about as a holy grail. I think everyone in a team has a responsibility to be a leader. It’s sometimes hard to develop that. Managing a team is understanding who fits best where.”

Best was part of the last generation of players to grow up unaware that professional rugby might be an option, a bona fide job well worth pursuing.

Sitting down to chat in the shadow of the family home during a busy-as-ever day on a farm, he looks utterly content with his lot. Having earned 23 international caps and played 110 times for Ulster, he looks back on over a decade-long career in rugby as an out-and-out bonus rather than one cruelly cut short.

His stint in sport allowed him to captain the teams he watched in awe as a child, win a title with Ulster and three Triple Crowns with Ireland. And while he is humble about his own abilities on either side of the scrum, at various stages he rubbed elbows with greats of the game: Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Wilkinson, Paul O’Connell, Rob Andrew – not to mention his brother Rory.

Joining that sort of exalted company was rarely a straightforward road. Right from the beginning with Banbridge, where ‘the country boys’ felt they were very much on the outside as far us Ulster selection was concerned, Best made sure to work hard at leaving an impression whenever schools level presented an opportunity.

“My dad, my uncle and grandfather all played with Banbridge. We knocked around and played minis there… school was Portadown, which wasn’t really a rugby hotbed either – which maybe stands you in good stead because you’re always against the odds a bit.” 

Odds be damned, Best earned a place on the Irish Schools panel, a crop that included Leo Cullen, Bob Casey and Peter Stringer and managed to go unbeaten through a tour in Australia in 1996.

“Rugby had just gone professional and I was heading off to Newcastle to study, thinking that my career was in agriculture.

“I came back with a degree in farming and rugby.

“It was an amazing time to be there. By dint of being in Irish Schools I was picked up by Newcastle. At that time, John Hall the football club owner, decided he was going to create a rugby team. And they picked 15 or 16 full professional rugby players and they filled the rest out with students. So I was in the right place at the right time.” 

Simon Best Best in action against Namibia in 2003. Source: INPHO

It was a stellar line-up put together in England’s north-east. Andrew, Ross Nesdale, Nick Popplewell and Doddy Weir were bolstering the first XV, but there was a star to eclipse them all coming through the ranks.

“One minute you’re in school and watching them on Rugby Special. Then everything changes and goes professional. I just happened to be leaving school at the time. Played a number of games for the firsts… Jonny Wilkinson arrived the year after me so I was playing Second XV games with Jonny – three months later, he came off the bench on the wing for England.

“They (the veterans) were competitive top-level rugby players. But they weren’t professionals. They all had jobs until a number of years before that, whereas Jonny came out of school and almost taught them. Guys were super competitive but were semi-amateur in ethos. So you had that really good rugby ethos.”

And a really, really good team. The Falcons won the Premiership title in 1998 while Best was firmly among the supporting cast. Unfortunately for the future Ireland captain, the stint also coincided with English rugby’s withdrawal from European competitions. The loose, early days of professionalism allowed him to get painfully close to the Ulster side who wound up claiming Ireland’s first Heineken Cup in 1999.

“I was on Newcastle’s books and I was involved with them, but Ulster was still a bit of a representative team. Even when I was at Newcastle, I was involved a bit with Ulster, trained with them a bit if I was at home.  There weren’t the boundaries that there are now.

“Ulster won the European Cup. I had been training during the summer with them. I was sort of there, but not there.

“It was difficult. I really enjoyed Newcastle. They offered me a contract, but I was leaving university and the European Cup brought me back. Just the prospect to build on something that was such a great achievement.”

He adds: “Growing up you never want to play for anyone else.”

Former captain Simon Best Source: PRESSEYE/INPHO

Best laments that Ulster’s European triumph proved to be an outlier of sorts without the foundation to build a lasting challenge when European competition was fully restored.

When they next won the Celtic League title six years later, the Poyntzpass prop was a cornerstone of the success as captain. But that trophy too had a bittersweet taste when Best got to kiss it.

It was his first season as skipper, but at the moment of triumph it was Justin Harrison who lifted the trophy while Best was nursing the worst conventional injury of his career.

“We had won the Celtic Cup in ’03 and then the Celtic League in ’06. It was some achievement then. Up until ’02 we were still playing AIL for half the year and the European Cup ended in January. Then (after that) the Celtic League took off. It was a great privilege to have captained the province for two years… nice to be the last team to have won something I suppose. I’m entitled to something around the dinner table,” he jokes.

In the meantime, Best had mined himself a commendable international career. Before the advent of matchday squads with a 23rd man, his ability to play both loose and tighthead ticked an array of boxes for Eddie O’Sullivan. And while hindsight makes him wonder whether he should have been more forceful in making a case to start rather than be cast as a utility, the value of his versatility helped him make his way to some of the most memorable scenes in 21st century Irish rugby.

Of all Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final exits, the experience around 2003 is among the most fondly remembered by all who were involved. Four years on from the Diego Albanese debacle, there was a sense of youth and hope in an energetic Ireland squad containing a 23-year-old Paul O’Connell, a 24-year-old captain-in-waiting and a 25-year-old Ulster prop who felt the full momentum of a bolter having won his first cap earlier that summer in Tonga.

“That was a special time,” says Best wistfully as we retrace over the retribution against Argentina – albeit with Alan Quinlan’s shoulder marked as collateral damage – and giving the host nation an almighty scare in the pool decider.

Best has played for Ireland in two World Cups and through four Six Nations. He has stood on ceremony for Tests in Croke Park, Lansdowne Road and Ravenhill. And he captained his country through the much-maligned 2007 summer tour.

“We had a great time in Argentina,” he smiles, “we went over on that tour as a second-string team and I was fortunate enough to be captain in the two Tests. That’s a special memory, but at the time it’s part of a process of building towards the World Cup, which is the pinnacle.”

Mountaineers might tell you that pinnacles and pitfalls are often side by side.

The intensity, the ever-building pressure towards that fateful ’07 tournament meant that Best does not recall the chance to play for Ireland in Ravenhill with quite the same warmth as his previous outings. At that point, Ireland’s situation was fast reaching a critical point and the focus was acutely trained on turning momentum around before they all shacked pitched up at the World Cup – a tournament that defines global reputations.

“I was able to watch the ’87 World Cup. I was young, the same age as my eldest boy now.

“So I have a tangible memory of World Cups. ’91, being here, we got to a number of the games, went to the Ireland-Australia match. So I’ve great memories of all the World Cups. To be able to play in two is very special.

“Building up to them, all the games are just part of it. But once you get there… ’07 particularly was a strange experience.”

As each game passed with lamentations of another sub-par performance, the next-game focus players hold naturally led them to believe that the issue could yet be turned around.

“Against Namibia it was like, ‘It’ll be fine,’” says Best of the 32-17 win, but back in Bordeaux with a front-line XV sent out to wrestle with a mean Georgian pack, Irish eyes now had no option but to face the writing long-since scrawled up on the wall.

“I was on for that last period,” says Best, still grimacing at the thought of the closing siege as Georgia pushed for a winning try.

I just remember the feeling and the atmosphere and the disbelief almost… a really strange atmosphere both on the pitch and around the ground.  After Namibia, to have two games in a row not clicked, it was really strange.”

By the time it came time to play the host nation, Ireland’s perfect storm ran into a France side desperately digging their way back after losing to Argentina. Les Bleus teed themselves up for a momentous Cardiff occasion against New Zealand by steam-rolling Ireland.

“We probably played better than we had the week before against Georgia,” says Best as he slips back into the positive athlete mindset.

“We knew we had a difficult task against Argentina, but we knew we weren’t out.”

Alas, for the stalwart Ulster prop, the decisive Puma Test never came and his career-ending health scare became one of a litany of laments for the camp as a whole.

Argentina fulfilled their promise by soundly beating Ireland, and having come so close to winning the Six Nations that same year, O’Sullivan’s side shipped out early. Best had to extend his stay in Bordeaux under a heart specialist’s scrutiny.

“It was a bit strange to come home after the team came home. I think it was two days after they got home”

“It was totally out of the blue from a health perspective. I was walking down the street on the Wednesday.

“It was our down afternoon and we were into town for a cup of coffee. I was walking down the street with Paddy Wallace and I started to get a tingling in my fingers, down the right – didn’t think much of it. Then after that I started to feel a bit numb down the side of my face and then started saying to Paddy, ‘This doesn’t feel right’, and then my speech started to go.

“He probably started to panic a bit then and I was trying to… not panic.”

A very quick taxi, a stop by with Dr Gary O’Driscoll and then admission to hospital later,  that initial move towards a steady calm response by Best was, fortunately, rewarded and borne out through his long-term health prospects. Though he was advised to not risk a return to rugby and confirmed his retirement in early 2008, he stepped away grateful to be in the full of his musculoskeletal health.

The ticker kept pumping too.

simon-best Best warming up with Ireland Legends ahead of a meeting with England two years ago. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“That’s the good thing. I was still pretty fit when I finished playing. I had minimal injuries in my career — a fracture-dislocation in my ankle which I recovered very well from — that was my only real major injury.

“I’ve had broken fingers and fractured eye-sockets and things, but I never had anything that kept me out for longer than that. And fortunately it doesn’t give me any trouble now.

“I retired a bit earlier. I still had 10 or 12 years of professional rugby even at the age of 30, because I went straight from school.

“It was such a great time to be involved as a professional player. To have all that and not have any major niggles I consider myself very fortunate on that end.

You have to take a positive from everything in life. You didn’t have to make a decision when to finish.

“Yes, it was hard initially and all your peers are still playing, but as they all finished, you realise you’re fit and healthy and have a career to look back on.

“I’ve 23 caps for Ireland, played for Ulster for 10 years, got to play in Newcastle for three years at a special time for rugby. And I’m still able to go and coach and I’m very involved with rugby.

“With Rory playing as long as he has, it’s kept me involved. I’ve nothing but fond memories of playing rugby and I’m very much involved in it.

“And I hope to continue being involved for a long time.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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