Bond of brothers that has endured down the years
One from Ulster and one from Munster, but both sharing a farming background, GERRY THORNLEYsits in as the Irish internationals talk about a friendship that stretches back to the all-conquering Irish schools trip to Australia in 2000
THE SPATE of internecine derbies over the festive period doesn’t always appear to foster a spirit of good will. But one of the most enduring interprovincial friendships on the Irish rugby circuit is between Rory Best and Denis Leamy, captains in last season’s corresponding Ulster-Munster fixture but interested bystanders last night. Thicker than thieves, contemporaries and kindred spirits, Leamy was groomsman for Best’s wedding.
So you ask Best what were Leamy’s duties on the day, on July 2009 in Co Armagh. “Basically, I don’t know, what did you do?” says the Ulsterman, and before the Munsterman can open his mouth, Best recalls: “He drank a lot of Guinness! One of the duties was to make sure I got to the church on time and in one piece. He got me there on time but I didn’t feel like I was in one piece.”
Dating back to the Irish schools summer tour to Australia in 2000, their friendship has endured countless derbies, but also plenty of time together in the Irish senior set-up as their Test careers followed near identikit patterns, most notably in the Grand Slam campaign of 2009.
Recently, Best and Leamy began representing Bushmills whiskey as ambassadors, or to give them their formal title, Bushmills Brothers. “The opportunity came up and because we’ve been friends for so long, it seemed like quite a good fit for us, so we decided we’d run with it,” explained Best during a round of media interviews the pair recently gave in Belfast.
Best was 17 and Leamy 18 when they toured Australia, winning all nine matches. “The closest game that we won was the Test match, and we won 35-6 or something – stuffed them. We had a decent old team,” chuckled Best, which is putting it mildly given the squad included the likes of Gavin Duffy, Shane Jennings, Roger Wilson, Matt McCullough, Stephen Keogh, Frank Murphy, Ian Humphreys, Scott Young and Andrew Maxwell.
“Almost everyone at one point had been involved in a professional set-up,” said Best. “People like John Lyne was on it and at that stage he and Jodie Danagher were two of the best props I played with. They were unbelievable at underage.”
Ask them what brought them together and Leamy echoes Fr Jack when he quips: “Drink!” Indeed, they had a few days off in Surfers Paradise, which happened to coincide with Best’s 18th birthday. “I’m not in the same league as Leamy,” says Best, to which Leamy retorts: “He’s a martyr for the cause.”
More seriously, Leamy adds: “Ah, we just had a good bit in common. We’re both from farming backgrounds and . . . I think we had a lot of common ground and we enjoyed a night out. We got to know each other on that tour and then when we broke into the Irish set-up, pretty much around the same time. We roomed together and we just got to know each other very, very well and we’ve been good friends ever since. We bounce stuff off each other a lot and it’s great for both of us.”
Best returned to Newcastle, where he was studying, and their academy system, while Leamy, two days after landing home from Australia, went into the IRFU academy. The following season they played against each other in a Munster-Ulster under-21 interpro and then played together for the Irish under-21s.
They lost a little bit of contact before rooming together when Best followed Leamy into the Irish squad in the autumn of 2005. “It worked out quite well,” recalls Best. “I think there were only three Ulster players or something, so the other two roomed together and I went with Denis.”
Best joined Leamy on the pitch for his debut four minutes from the end of a 45-7 defeat to the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road. “One of the terraces was closed for the game because there’d been a fire the previous evening,” recalls Leamy of a grim day. “There was very little atmosphere and we just took a hammering; chasing shadows for the day. We were hammered out the gate but it was good craic celebrating his first cap.”
Best was a temporary replacement the following week against Australia and was on the bench throughout the ensuing Six Nations, though only played one minute, as Ireland won the Triple Crown, with Leamy a try scorer in the Twickenham finale.
The following season Best and Leamy were ever presents in autumnal wins over South Africa and Australia, as well as a second placed finish in the Six Nations, which featured another Triple Crown and that stunning 43-13 win over England in Croke Park. After the horrors of the 2007 World Cup and a disappointing 2008 Six Nations, better followed in ’09, when they each appeared off the bench in the wins over France, Italy and England, then started the win over Italy and re-appeared off the bench to be on the pitch for that dramatic Slam-clinching finale in the Millennium Stadium.
“Obviously we’ve both had our fair share of injuries but they’ve nearly always overlapped,” says Best. “There haven’t been many Irish squads that we both haven’t been involved in.”
They’ve also been foes along the way too. Friendships put aside for 80 minutes, beat the living lard out of each other and then put it behind them . . .
“Like, I’ve had more fights with Donncha O’Callaghan than I have with every other player I’ve ever played against combined!” says Best. “I would like to think I get on really well with him off the pitch. It’s just one of those things. You put the emotions aside off the pitch.”
As for Leamy? “A complete knacker on the pitch, as you can imagine,” says Best. “You’ve covered him long enough. You just have to realise it’s bred into him, there’s nothing he can do. He doesn’t mean it.”
“I’m not nearly as bad as made out or labelled,” says Leamy indignantly.
“He’s actually gotten progressively better as he’s got older,” maintains Best good-naturedly. “I remember him as an 18-year-old, he was far worse than he is now. A complete lunatic.”
“I’m not sure about that,” says Leamy.
“One of my first memories of playing with him,” continues Best regardless, “was France away, a 17-year-old, when he nearly decapitated (Frederic) Michalak.”
“Yeah,” admits Leamy, now conceding a little ground on this topic. “It had been drilled into us all week about how talented this number 10 was, by (coach) Keith Patten. So the first opportunity I got to try and chase him down, I kind of over-exuberantly followed through on a tackle and ended up cleaning him out of it.”
“It was like something you’d see out of the top rope in WWF,” says Best.
“It wasn’t a good moment at all,” admits Leamy.
In return, Leamy suggests Best is not a bad player, before relenting and conceding that: “He’s a very, very good player, I think the guys that know him in the Irish squad know what a leader he is, how he contributes within the squad.
“I think he’s a thorough professional and certainly I know the Munster lads, who I know very well, would rate him very, very highly and he’s thought an awful lot of within the group.”
And, needless to say, Best appreciates Leamy’s hard edge. “Put it like this, you’d far rather play with him than against him, and you know when you’re playing with him that he’s never going to let you down. It goes a long way in a team sport to have people like that around you.”
On New Year’s Day last season, when opposing captains for the first time, Leamy had the bragging rights after a 37-10 bonus-point win, but he wasn’t inclined to brag. In truth, Munster were a little flattered by a spate of late tries, the fourth coming in overtime.
“I just shook his hand,” recalls Leamy. “We got a bonus point we didn’t deserve. I could see in Rory’s face that he thought the same and at that stage I didn’t want to be rubbing it in too much, to be honest. So we just shook hands and parted there and, went on to chat about something else.”
“We won the toss,” recalls Best.
“And we won everything else after that,” says Leamy.
If their friendship can survive nights like that, it can survive anything, including some texting from a watching brief last night.