Rory Best: ‘I just thought you played the game hard, and partied hard.’
Former Ireland captain talks to Donald McRae about turning things around
Rory Best gets a send-off from fellow Irish players after his final game for Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, the World Cup warm-up against Wales in September 2019. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
“It was another one of those nights and I went in to the local chicken shop, as you do,” Rory Best says as he remembers a drunken time long before he won the first of 124 Test caps. Despite being a Protestant from Ulster, and a man once derided for his background and body shape, Best captained Ireland 38 times, with his final game being the World Cup quarter-final defeat against New Zealand last year.
He is the most capped forward in Irish rugby history, and only Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara have played more times for Ireland. But I like the fact that Best can bring us back to a Belfast chicken shop – from where, in his early 20s, he stumbled home and caused unintentional havoc.
“I’m coming back and sometimes I brought keys, sometimes I didn’t. At the place I was staying you could put your foot to the corner of the door and give it a nudge, and it sprung open. When I got back I tried to do that but the door didn’t open.
“So I battered it. Eventually it burst open and I walked in. I saw this flowery wallpaper. I took two steps back because there was no flowery wallpaper in my house. I panicked, dropped everything and ran outside. I saw my house was the one next door. I raced upstairs and just fell asleep on my bed.”
When he woke the next morning Best saw his KFC takeaway littered around his neighbour’s garden. He liked the old man who lived next door but, stricken with guilt, he escaped to his parents’ farmhouse in Poyntzpass in Co Armagh.
When he returned a few days later, the neighbour opened his repaired front door and strolled over to tell young Rory he should watch out because there had been an attempted burglary. “It was a little heads-up from this lovely fella that I needed to be careful,” Best says, “but really it was his way of saying: ‘We know you’re a good lad but please don’t let this happen again.’ I was like: ‘Okay.’”
A sheepish Best turned away, only to be called back by the neighbour who handed him his credit card which had been found in the garden. Best shakes his head in embarrassment. “In those days I just thought you played the game hard, and partied hard. I had to find it in myself to change. Some people never find it. And some people are lucky like me – they discover it early enough in their career to change.”
In his new autobiography Best is bracingly honest about his youthful ill-discipline – which makes his subsequent dedication even more impressive. He played his first game for Ulster in 2004 and remained loyal to his province for 15 years. Best made his Test debut, coming off the bench, against New Zealand at Lansdowne Road in 2005 and the first of many damning comments about him wearing an Ireland shirt appeared in print.
Neil Francis, the former international whom he had cheered on as a schoolboy, described how “Rory Best waddled on to win his first cap”. Best, who is an amiable man, says: “I was not in very good shape. But I didn’t know that at the time. At that stage it was the greatest day of my rugby life and so to get a former player saying that did hurt.”
Best endured more abuse than most Irish players. Eleven years later, in 2016, when Joe Schmidt appointed him as Ireland’s new captain, Best received hundreds of messages of support. But he still remembers the tweet which said: “No affence [sic] but how can a fat Protestant like you captain our country, you don’t even sing the anthem?” Best retweeted it while saying: “None taken. FYI, it is ‘offence’, not ‘affance.’ But thanks for your constructive feedback.”
Best is surpassed only by Willie John McBride as an Ireland captain from Ulster. “Willie Anderson was captain for a little bit,” Best points out, “but, yeah, there hasn’t been too many. I’m very proud of the fact I come from Ulster. And I’m very proud of the fact that the only international team I’ve ever supported is Ireland. So I’m incredibly proud to have captained Ireland. The beauty of the Irish rugby team is that there’s a lot of respect.
“I respect the Irish-speaking element of it. The national anthem. I respect all of that. They respect where I come from. We slag each other for fun but there’s mutual respect. When you look at soccer, Northern Ireland really struggle to get to the major tournaments. So do the Republic. But in rugby, as a combined all-Ireland team, we got to No 1 in the world.”
Best also points out that rugby can unify communities – even if it is played predominantly by middle-class Protestants in Ulster. His dad united Best’s primary school side at Poyntzpass with St Joseph’s, a Catholic school. They formed a cross-community mini-rugby team.
“It wasn’t a big deal in our village,” Best says. “In terms of the Troubles I remember only one terrible incident in the village. Two best friends, a Protestant and a Catholic, were shot dead. The village still wears the scar to this day.”
In March 1998, when Best was 15 and just weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Philip Allen and Damien Trainor were killed while they shared a couple of pints in the pub. Such a tragedy, Best remarks, put his own pain as a rugby player into perspective.
That sick side of you goes: ‘What is being said?’ Once you read it, you can’t unread it, much as you wish you could.
Reading his book, it is striking how Best was haunted and then driven by insecurity. “People have different ways of motivating themselves. I have a younger sister but I was the youngest of three boys. Simon played Irish Schools, and for Ireland, so he was the rugby one. Mark was a very good rugby player, but he excelled academically. I was like, ‘What do I excel at?’
“You almost develop this chip on your shoulder and it drives you on. That’s where this need to prove myself started. It is doubt. But you almost generate the doubt, to prove them wrong. I used to say in the Irish team room, ‘I might get dropped this week’, and they’d laugh at me. Whenever you get laughed at in an Irish context, by fellow players, you’re in a good position. But I needed that little push.”
In the build-up to Ireland’s famous defeat of New Zealand in Dublin in 2018 – beating the All Blacks under Best’s leadership for the second time in three matches, having never tasted victory against them before – he told his wife he was about to pull on the green shirt for the final time. There had been so much criticism of Best, as being too old and slow, he was certain Schmidt would drop him.
“You allow people to convince you that you’re done,” Best says. “All I wanted was a win for Ireland and I wondered if they might have a better chance without me. But, deep down, I knew Joe would’ve been the first one to tell me. You say to everyone: ‘Don’t read the papers.’ But you’ve got well-meaning friends and family. They send the odd text going, ‘Don’t listen to the papers. We know you can do it.’ Now I’m going to have to look at the papers. That sick side of you goes: ‘What is being said?’ Once you read it, you can’t unread it, much as you wish you could.”
Ireland peaked in 2018, when they won the Grand Slam and beat Australia and New Zealand, before they ran out of steam, and ideas, in a World Cup year. Best is mortified that a comment saying Schmidt became too caught up in “detail” was taken out of context. He and his former coach remain close and Schmidt even wrote the foreword to Best’s book. But have they discussed why Ireland lost their way?
“That’s one of the things that we haven’t talked about,” Best admits. “When we spoke it was making sure he understood the headline gave the wrong impression. He was totally fine – but we haven’t really chatted about the World Cup.
“One of the things the Irish Union could do – looking ahead to the next World Cup – is listen to our viewpoints. I have a big regret that, from a captaincy point of view, I didn’t phone Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell. I played in four World Cups but I didn’t ask Brian what he had learned in 2007 and 2011. If Johnny Sexton’s the captain at the next World Cup that would be one thing you’d encourage him to do – to ask what we would all do differently as past captains. I think the union has a bit of fear involving recent former players. Hopefully that changes.”
The most damaging period in Best’s career coincided with the rape trial involving his Ulster team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Best, who was close to Jackson, agreed to be a character witness in court. He has since admitted his decision was mistaken and that he was “incredibly naive” in not considering the impact his support for the men would have on the isolated female victim.
Has he spoken to Jackson since his book was published? “No, I haven’t. There’s a chapter on it because there are questions the public probably want answered. But people are trying to move on with their lives. That’s why I don’t want to talk about it.”
Does he acknowledge how the traumatised young woman felt – as she saw herself facing the might of “Ulster Inc” in court, as well as Ireland’s captain? “I don’t really want to go into it, Don. I’ve said everything I need to in the book.”
Best is open in admitting his past failings. He is clearly a decent man and he wrung the last drop from his talent. Now, aged 37, he seems to be adjusting to sporting retirement as he considers his future. “I’ve done some TV and commercial work. I’m now doing the book stuff. As for the future I don’t necessarily want to pull a tracksuit on every day. Maybe a mentorship or consultancy role in rugby, or a scrum coach?
“ Or maybe being more strategic in terms of almost being like a football manager, where you don’t necessarily see them in a tracksuit but they have coaches below them that they trust, and they’re involved in the longer-term picture.”
He spreads his hands wide as if to illustrate his open attitude – as well as his love for a game which changed his life so much since those nights he was stumbling home from a chicken shop in Belfast. “I feel I owe rugby,” Best says simply. “Rugby’s given me so much over the years.” – Guardian
Rory Best’s My Autobiography is published by Hodder & Stoughton.