Retiring Rory can still save best ‘til last

When Don Best brought his three grandsons down to Banbridge Rugby Club every week to play mini-rugby, he always came with the same complaint.

A former club captain back in the 1950s, and with a son (John) involved in a variety of roles from captain to president to chairman, Don’s was a voice entitled to be heard.

“He’d bring Simon, Mark and Rory down and around two weeks out of every three we’d be training,” recalls long-serving executive committee member David Dodds.

“On the third week we’d play a match against another club.

“Don would always be giving out that the boys weren’t getting enough matches. ‘They need more matches!’ he’d say.

“He thought the only way they could improve was to play more matches, but it didn’t seem to work out too bad for them anyway.”

Dodds has seen four generations of the Best family come through the club.

After Don and John had their day, they got excited around Banbridge when Simon, the oldest of the next generation, went on to play for Ulster and Ireland. The middle son, Mark, also managed representative underage honours with both his province and country.

But the best was saved for last with the youngster, Rory, who went on to become Ireland’s most capped hooker (117) and captain his country on some of the biggest days in Irish rugby history.

Since replacing Paul O’Connell as captain in 2013, Best has led Ireland to three Six Nations championships including the Grand Slam in 2018 and is the only Irish captain to lead the nation to wins over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

And now it’s coming to an end. He has played his last game for Ulster, waved his tearful goodbyes, and will go through it all in a green jersey in a few months’ time.

When he walks off the pitch after Ireland’s final game at the World Cup (and wouldn’t it be the send-off to beat all send-offs if that game was the final on November 2?) Best will be sad inside and out but he knows he’ll be alright.

It’s his kids he’s worried about.

The Irish rugby public have grown used to seeing the Ireland captain joined by his children Ben (8), Penny (6) and Richie (3) for the post-match celebrations or commiserations. They have travelled the world to make sure they’re on the pitch to mark every single moment of what has been an outstanding professional career.

“Richie keeps telling me he’s going to be a professional rugby player with Ulster and Ireland but that he’s not going to retire,” says Best, now 36.

“Ben knows a little bit more and he sort of knew it was coming, though he hoped it wouldn’t.

“And Penny just enjoys the camera, I don’t know what she’s going to do when the camera’s not on her next year.

“My wife (Jodie) brings them all to every game. We talked at the time we were having them that we wanted them to be involved, we wanted them to have memories like this.

“Whenever we had our first we thought we’d get him there because we didn’t know how many we were going to have.

“He’s had eight years coming here, going to Ireland games, going to Lions games and she’s brought them everywhere.

“I don’t know how she travels places with them, but she does, and they have these special moments.”

It has been a very long goodbye, with a series of announcements drip-feeding the news of Best’s inevitable exit from first Ireland, and then Ulster.

That culminated in one big emotional swansong at Kingspan Stadium at the start of May. The Ulster fans got their chance to say goodbye in the PRO14 quarter-final win over Connacht, which teed up one last final tilt at silverware, but it wasn’t to be.

He was never to replicate his international success with domestic rewards, with only a Celtic League in 2006 to show for some 15 years’ service at Ulster.

A Heineken Cup final in 2012 and PRO12 final the following year were the closest he got, while his Leinster, Munster and Connacht team-mates got to walk off with the end-of-season prizes. There could be some consolation in that, though, as those triumphs fed into the successes he enjoyed at international level.

When it’s over, his own in Banbridge are hoping it all comes full circle and he goes back to where he started.

“He has come down and done some coaching in the last few years but what his plans are for the future, who knows,” says Dodds.

“This is probably not the time to ask him but whatever he wants to do, we will accommodate him.

“His man-management is one of his greatest skills, he knows how to read different situations and the Ulster boys all say there is a different attitude in the changing-room when he is there.

“Mario Itoje, who’s being tipped as a future England captain, said Rory was one of the best captains he’s played under in terms of his leadership.

“His longevity is evidence of how well he looks after himself and there is no question he has set the greatest example to every person he comes into contact with.”

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