Back to his Best after the worst of days
Ulster hooker bounces back from Lions tour with spring in his step for autumn Tests
“I never want to go back to Canberra, is the lesson from that experience,” he quips.
His entire family had arrived by then. His brother Simon’s five-day trek took in the Counties game, before his mum Pat, dad John, along with wife Jody and their two kids, Ben and Penny, arrived four days before the Brumbies’ game. His brother Mark and sister Rebecca had also arrived for a fortnight.
He admits their combined presence may have added “a wee bit more pressure, but after the Brumbies’ game it was nice to have them there, especially Jody and the kids”.
It made the rest of the tour seem less interminable, all the more so as Ben’s third birthday was the day after the first Test; Adidas providing a pair of boots with his name on them. “I had to wait until I was 25 before I got anything on the side of my boots,” notes Best. His only other outing was for the last midweek game against the Rebels a week after his Brumbies’ fiasco, when he replaced Hibbard after 55 minutes and located his five darts. “At least the Lions experience finished on a bit of high note, relatively speaking.”
Best also enjoyed the sense of occasion around that Sydney decider, along with the training and the squad spirit. “The boys were great. There was no-one you didn’t want to be stuck in a lift with. There was none of that.”
Ulster gave him five weeks’ holidays, and how he needed them. In his first week home there was Mark’s stag in Biarritz and Pamplona. A week later he was best man at the wedding of an old University friend, Jimmy Nicholls, in Norfolk; enabling Best to take in the first day of the Lord’s Ashes test. He and Jody went from there on to Biarritz for Paul O’Connell’s wedding – a four-day trip – and the following week was Mark’s wedding in Edinburgh. They spent week five in Donegal.
A sports psychologist couldn’t have planned it better, and Best has Mark Elliot in that capacity to call when he needs to. In pre-season, he quickly began working on his darts with throwing coach Allen Clarke, although he now realises he perhaps became too reliant on him, and Clarke has helped him to resolve issues himself.
It’s a hell of a skill, aiming at an imaginary target up to three and a half metres high, about 800 millimetres wide, and anything from six to 15 metres in distance. “And you’re relying on the lift being right, the jump being right, the guy jumping in the same spot every time.”
Still, the first week was a struggle. Turning 31 that first week back, on August 15th, didn’t fill him with glee either, but he had plenty of support from Mark Anscombe and David Humphreys, team-mates and supporters.
He threw “really really well” at the two-day Irish camp and Best took that confidence into his seasonal return at home to Treviso. He knew everybody would be keenly watching his first couple of throws, and though Ulster only had five in all, they won them all, and Best made 15 tackles to boot.