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Rory Best: My Autobiography: Front row view

Book review: How a ruthless streak brought ‘a fat wee kid’ to the top in Irish rugby

Rory Best: My Autobiography
Rory Best: My Autobiography
Author: Rory Best
ISBN-13: 978-1529362404
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Guideline Price: £20

What makes a successful captain? Talent, the ability to motivate, communication, strategic thinking. We talk of players being born leaders but what’s interesting about Rory Best is that although not over-endowed with these qualities in his youth, he became captain of the most successful Irish rugby team so far.

How did he do it? The answer, mostly, is hard work, an ethic instilled during his idyllic childhood on the family farm in Armagh. Best accepts he was far from the most talented player, but he made himself one of the fittest. The “shy fat lad from Poyntzpass” had big boots to fill following the captaincies of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, but when he heads the poll in the squad vote, Best has the full support of Joe Schmidt, whom he describes as Ireland’s greatest coach.

Best's frankness is endearing. So is his vulnerability as he describes sessions with sports psychologists and a hypnotist

Integrity, resilience, and a willingness to follow a plan are attributes prized by the New Zealander, and Best is an exemplary model from the Schmidt production line; low-key, no-frills, dedicated and reliable.

It wasn’t always so. Best’s early career is old-school; days on the field, nights on the batter. Tales abound of wrecked hotel-beds, fire-extinguishers and drinking games (one involving cocktail sticks would make your eyes water). A fast-food junkie, he ruefully notes the empty pizza boxes piling up around him. Returning after a night’s boozing, he cannot open his front door and has to shoulder it in – only to find he has broken into his neighbour’s house. Disciplinary sanctions follow. Aware his bad-boy image will cost him, he moves from Belfast back to Portadown to live with Jodie, his childhood sweetheart, and implements a self-imposed (if intermittent) drinking ban.


As he climbs the Irish rugby ladder, Best’s ruthless streak is evident. Family is important, but it doesn’t stop him accepting the Ulster captaincy – thereby demoting his elder brother, Simon. His gritty determination to improve is admirable. Resolving to practice even more, he converts a cattle-feed bin on the farm into a machine which will return the balls he throws for hours.

There’s a tetchiness here as well. Best refers to himself as a “chubby” and a “fat wee kid”, but when Neil Francis describes him “waddling on” to win his first cap against New Zealand Best is outraged, and huffily recounts his beloved grandfather “Pop” Best’s disapproval of Francis during his own international career, when apparently he would stand for the anthems in boots still dirty from a previous game. A Twitter reference to him as a “fat Protestant” on his appointment as Irish captain is more pointed.

Best’s commitment to the cause of Ulster and Irish rugby is heartfelt and non-sectarian; his father was instrumental in creating a mini-rugby team of children from the local Catholic school as well as from Best’s own primary school. There are passing references to the Troubles but Best does not seem politically engaged. Preferring to stay focussed, he eschews singing the national anthems, and chews caffeine gum instead.

Chippy resistance

Like many hookers, he is a closet number 10. On the bench alongside David Humphreys when Humphreys refuses Eddie O’Sullivan’s request to go on as a sub for the last few minutes, Best wonders: could I not come on at out-half instead? The sight of him dropping back to take the 2009 Grand Slam winning drop-goal in Cardiff is hair-raising; mercifully, Stringer’s pass finds Ronan O’Gara, and the rest is history. Best is friendly with O’Gara and they share the same cussedness, and chippy resistance to “unfair” criticism.

Not that critical analysis is in short supply, especially under Schmidt. Best’s failure to study a video-clip the coach prepares of an English player in 2014 costs Ireland the match – and the Triple Crown, and Grand Slam. Schmidt rightly lifts him out of it at the subsequent team meeting. Best’s frankness is endearing. So is his vulnerability as he describes sessions with sports psychologists and a hypnotist, and dread-filled sleepless nights, wondering if he’ll hold his place or if he’s really up to being captain.

Almost unstinting in his praise for Schmidt, he’s less enthusiastic about earlier Irish coaches such as Declan Kidney (“going round in riddles”) and Eddie O’Sullivan (“didn’t want strong coaches around him”) though he acknowledges that the so-called “golden generation” were maddeningly inconsistent during those years.

Best’s wry humour is also evident. Marooned in their industrial estate hotel during the doomed 2007 World Cup, he observes Paul O’Connell living on a diet of rice-cakes and Nutella. After Eddie O’Sullivan is accused of being aloof, he tries to endear himself by popping into the team room for a bit of craic. Best isn’t buying. “I respected him as a coach, but I didn’t want to play table-tennis with him.” He notes with amusement that some of the current Ulster coaching themes are inspired by characters in the TV series Game of Thrones. But for a hooker, rugby is primarily a game of throw-ins (thank you, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly) and it’s this aspect of Best’s game that occasionally lets him down, costing him a Lions Test place, though as a popular squad member he is nicknamed “Sir Best” by his Lions drinking crew in 2017 after his OBE is announced.

The book follows a well-worn structure: opening with a description of his last moments in an Irish jersey, there follows a chronological account of Best’s life, with observation snippets thrown in. It’s a smart decision to engage Gavin Mairs, the Daily Telegraph’s chief rugby correspondent as co-author; the book is far less turgid than Schmidt’s recent offering Ordinary Joe. However, it fails to capture the on-field drama as vividly as Brian O’Driscoll’s The Test, and is less compelling than Paul O’Connell’s The Battle. Perhaps this is a function of what Best calls the reticence of the Portadown mindset.

The voice here is quieter and, at times, defensive. Best’s decision to attend the first day of the infamous Belfast rape trial as a “character witness” for one of the accused, his friend and fellow international Paddy Jackson, was astonishingly naive, as is his dismay at the avalanche of criticism that followed. (Jackson and and his co-accused Stuart Olding were subsequently found not guilty of all charges.) Yet Best appears almost unapologetic. Describing Jackson as “like a wee brother,” he explains, “I didn’t want my kids to think that in his hour of need I had deserted him”. Jackson’s behaviour was hardly an example Best wanted his children to follow, though perhaps this obduracy is unsurprising.

Stubborn, canny, diligent and affable, Best’s story captures the camaraderie of the team game, as well as the loneliness of the modern sports professional, a life in which there is far more agony than ecstasy.

John O’Donnell’s collection of short stories, Almost the Same Blue, will be published by Doire Press in May