Best of times: Ireland captain ready for battle in his 100th Test
Rory Best recalls the highs and low of his career as he leads his team against Australia
Rory Best: “I’m under contract until the end of next season and if I feel as I feel now, I don’t see why I couldn’t carry on playing.” Photpgraph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
As a child in the late 1980s, at the age of six or seven, Rory Best was first taken on the regular treks from Poyntzpass in Co Armagh to Irish international games at Lansdowne Road. His dad John drove, with his mum in the passenger seat, and being the youngest of three, Best sat between his brothers Neil and Mark in the back seat.
“Some of my first memories are of going down to the old Lansdowne Road, and stopping off in Monasterboice for a steak on the way home,” Best says after the squad moves into the Shelbourne Hotel on Thursday. “I suppose at the start I went down mostly because of the food on the way home and the atmosphere.
“When we came home my grandfather would quiz us on all the towns we drove through on the way. There were 14 or 15, and he’d grill us to see if we could remember them as well as the players we saw play, making sure that we took in absolutely everything about our trip, and the drive was probably about three hours back then.”
That his dad could acquire five tickets was due, Best reckons, to all the family becoming life members of Banbridge rugby club as soon as they were eligible. “I remember being a life member of Banbridge since I was no age.”
His dad was a loosehead prop at Banbridge and played alongside Best’s uncle Garry, a flanker. Both emulated their father, Best’s grandad Don, who was an outhalf with the club, and both of Best’s older brothers also played at Banbridge.
Best and his wife Jody have three kids, Ben (six), Penny (four) and Richie (one), and now it’s come full circle, with Best at Banbridge on weekend mornings to see his eldest play alongside Simon’s kids on the under-7s.
“I think he wants to be an outhalf or an outside back. I blame Charles Piatau. Ever since he came to Ulster, I notice Ben out in the back garden practising these big side-steps and goose-steps.”
“I still call it ‘the big city’ and I know in comparison Belfast is tiny. But in and around 2006 I decided I wanted to live closer to home so I moved to Portadown, about 15 minutes from my parents’ place and any spare time I had I went over to the farm, even to walk around and see how everyone was doing.”
As a kid, while he dreamed of playing for Ireland, that’s what it was: a dream. All he ever wanted was to captain Banbridge and be a farmer. But in 2009, Best suffered a neck injury and was forced to think of a career outside the game.
“It scared the life out of me, and chatting with my dad, we decided we would start my own herd of cattle, pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle,” he says.
“Now I live on the family farm. I don’t get as much time as I’d like to farm, but I still do all the paperwork, all the birth registering. Myself and a good friend, Neil Walker, take the stock to shows, which is a really good break from rugby.
“There are some similarities. You’re trying to hold on to these animals who are trying to get away from you and you need a little bit of determination. Dealing with 35 or 40 different personalities in rugby squads to dealing with one of my best friends and a couple of cattle is just a nice break from all that pressure.”
Best was openly anti-Brexit. “A lot of the problems with farming are just the uncertainties. You’re always subject to price fluctuations and weather, and so many other uncertainties, that to put another one into the mix was not what you wanted,” he says.
“The comfort that that single-farm payment from Europe gives you is something that you can rely on. It’s going to be reduced and going out eventually, but it will be drip-fed as opposed to ‘bang, gone’.
“And I think probably the biggest fear was that nobody had really put together the alternative if Brexit happened, and what would happen to the single-farm payment and what would the securities be in terms of world market prices.
Second Captains: Paul O'Connell's battle
“For our farm it could potentially be disastrous, and until various trade negotiations happen and we get a clearer picture of the alternatives, it’s still a worrying time, and I think the prices at the minute reflect that.”
“The late development is probably mostly due to being in Newcastle and enjoying student life the way most students do, and that’s why I came home in the end. After two years of that I wasn’t fit enough to run out of your way, never mind play to any kind of level of rugby.”
He returned home and, at the behest of former Ulster and Irish hooker Allen Clarke, who was overseeing the Ulster Academy, Best joined Belfast Harlequins.
“I thought I was working quite hard but we played on a Friday night and then you’d drink as much as you could until Sunday, and then you’d try to get yourself in some kind of shape to train on Monday,” he says.
Still, as well as Clarke, he credits Belfast Harlequins coach Andre Bester with upping his game.
Best gained his first Ulster contract in 2004, and by November of 2005 made his Irish debut against the All Blacks. Now on the verge of his 100th test, Best goes through his top six games for Ireland and thinks of those that didn’t make the shortlist, such as the 2011 World Cup win over Australia in Eden Park, the first Test win in South Africa last June in Newlands with 14 men and many more; not to mention that debut or his first starts in the November 2006 wins over South Africa and Australia.
“I really felt I was a bit part player back then, and we got a hiding as well,” he says of the 45-7 defeat on debut. “It was special to get on the pitch alongside Simon and I suppose if you’d asked me ten years ago it would probably have been number one but thankfully a lot has happened between then and now.”
“Flah [Jerry Flannery] had been really, really sick leading up to the game, to the extent that when we were in the team meeting getting ready to go, he was lying on the physio’s bed, almost wiped out,” Best says.
“The doc, Gary O’Driscoll at the time, said, ‘he’s not great and he’ll not last the 80, you need to get ready’. At about 60 minutes the call came down to get ready to go on. So I came down to the side of the pitch, took off my tracksuit and sat and watched the game in the freezing cold for 20 minutes.
“It was only after the game that Niallo [O’Donovan], the forwards coach, came to me and said sorry, that there’d been a mix-up in the messages, and it was Neil Best they wanted to replace.
“It kind of hit home to me then that I needed to change something, because Flah was playing unbelievably well, but the fact I couldn’t add anything for even 20 minutes, with him being so wiped out, told me I wasn’t in the right place.
“That summer I worked hard. Deep down, as much as you might try to bluff yourself, I knew I wasn’t fit enough and strong enough. That’s when I eased back significantly on the partying and working really hard on strength and fitness.”
Best admits he got a break when Flannery also had to undergo shoulder reconstruction that summer. Having been a replacement against Wales in 2006, Best would start every game of the 2007 Six Nations and, indeed, has played in all 50 games in the championship for the last ten seasons, starting 42 of them.
His durability? He cites Stephen Ferris and Seán O’Brien as “supreme power athletes, so they’re really highly strung and muscles tend to go on them. I wasn’t born with that natural ability. I’ve had to work hard on being fit. I know I’ve never been the fastest, but in those early days I made sure I was the fittest.”
He reckons he can determine an injury from a niggle. “When you sign a professional contract you basically sign up for your body being sore. I’ve obviously been lucky in that I’m a reasonably fast healer. I don’t know whether I have a high pain threshold or whether I’ve been lucky, but it’s possibly a combination of both.”
This has been augmented by his huge work rate, as well as his scrummaging and his poaching, which he believes are similar. “You stick your head where not everyone will go and then hang on for grim death until you hear a whistle blowing one way or the other.”
At 34, he says: “I believe age is just a number. I’m under contract until the end of next season and if I feel as I feel now, I don’t see why I couldn’t carry on playing. You’re a long time retired and I don’t want to jump ship prematurely.”
On top of all that, he followed on from the twin totems of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell as Irish captain from the start of last season and admits following two legends was difficult.
“The hardest thing at the start when you’re following guys like that is you feel an added pressure to do what they do. Even though I had experienced captaincy at Ulster, you still feel that pressure,” he says.
“The hardest lesson was that I don’t need to speak all the time. During a lull you felt that you need to fill it with words, and at this level you don’t.”
“You pick your times and that’s probably what I’ve learned over the last 12 months, especially when you’re dealing with coaches like Joe and Faz and Simon and Feeky.
“I suppose I’ve become a lot more familiar with the role and comfortable with it, and when you’re comfortable with something you speak naturally when you need to, as opposed to when you feel you have to.”
Today he joins select company alongside O’Driscoll (141 caps), Ronan O’Gara (130), O’Connell (115) and John Hayes (107).
“It’s very hard to believe. I remember going down to watch Rog and the Bull make their debuts in Lansdowne Road against Scotland in 2000. I went down to that with my family and my wife Jody. That was one of our first dates,” he says.
“I’d grown up immersed in rugby. My dad and my grandad had played. My mam came over from England and her dad was a soccer player, but very quickly it was either rugby or nothing so she had to roll with the rugby. We spent our life down in Banbridge, and rugby is very special to us.
“I remember the first time I came into camp and thought, ‘I’ve watched these guys on TV since I was a kid’ and it was quite intimidating at the start, to be in that group and then to play alongside and realise they’re great fellas too.
“You see them as celebrities, and now to be mentioned as the fifth person in that list is incredibly special for me because of our family’s love for rugby and the way I was brought up around that.”
Couldn’t have happened to a better bloke.