Ireland captain Rory Best 'destined to be a star'
For the men who witnessed the earliest days of Rory Best's rugby career, Ireland's newest captain was always destined for great things.
The 33-year-old Poyntzpass man was selected as Joe Schmidt's skipper for the Six Nations on Wednesday, the reward for a stellar career representing both Ulster and Ireland, but it was on the muddy fields of Banbridge RFC, Tandragee Junior High and Portadown College that the journey began.
Teachers and coaches recall a popular and hard-working child, a teen who gave his all but was far from averse to mischief.
Andrew Symington taught and coached Best at both Tandragee and Portadown College, where he is still head of boys PE, and has fond memories of the man who will lead the national side against Wales in a little under a fortnight.
"Rory won't mind me saying he was a character," remembered Symington.
"If there was somebody up to something, he'd have been there or thereabouts.
"Nothing bad, just some good banter, but he was very well-liked and respected. He just had that wee mischievous edge.
"I got on superbly well with him, always did. He had a big commitment with rugby, but he'd try his hand at everything.
"I remember he did nets for our school football team as well. Maybe there wasn't much finesse about it, but he did what he had to."
Symington, who it would seem was the first to bestow the honour of a captaincy on Best long before coaches of Ulster and Ireland followed suit, knew early on that he had a natural leader.
"Rory and I started Tandragee Junior High School at the same time, him as a pupil and me as a teacher.
"When he moved across to the college, I moved the same year, so our paths were parallel, I suppose.
"He'd been playing rugby all his life almost, with the minis at Banbridge obviously, but some of his first organised games in the school system would have been with me at Tandragee back in 1997 or '98.
"He captained the wee side we had at Tandragee and there was no doubt he was going to be my captain in upper sixth.
"He leads from the front. He's a quiet, unassuming guy off the pitch, but he just goes out and does his job consistently.
"When he needs to talk, he does and people listen. He has that respect from all his peers, always did.
"From an early age he was liked by everybody and one thing you could always rely on him for was speaking a lot of sense.
"Some people think they're a captain and can speak and speak and speak, but if you actually listen, there's not much substance there. That's not Rory."
While there was no debate that Best had huge potential, Symington remembers him as a pupil who would do anything for the benefit of the team.
"I'd played him at out-half before on our first fifteen, two times maybe I think, and he was more than happy to do it.
"He has a superb left boot, I had him kicking conversions and he did well at it too.
"Barney McGonigle was schools' selector at the time, we still laugh about the time I played Ireland's most capped hooker as a number 10.
"More often he propped back then, very good and very talented he was too.
"We moved him to hooker for the Ulster Schools' trials.
"There were two or three very talented props at the time, so between the two of us we had the conversation about moving across. There weren't too many hookers about. Sure enough he went down to the trials and the rest is history."
Best is the 14th native of Ulster to captain Ireland since the Second World War and the first to do so on a regular basis since Paddy Johns in the 1990s.
Brother Simon, whose career was cut short by a heart problem, also led out the side.
As Banbridge's former president and current youth convenor, David Dodds, remembers, the ability to lead goes back several generations in the family.
"I think what really makes it all the better is that Rory has always seen himself as Banbridge through and through," he said,
"His grandfather Don was our captain in the 1950s and his father, John, who is our current chairman, captained the side in the 1980s when we won the Junior Cup.
"Leadership ran in the family, there's no doubt about that.
"It was his grandfather that brought them (Rory, Simon and their elder brother Mark) down to our minis and he was always pushing to get them games.
"He'd come up and say 'we need more games for these boys'. He didn't like the idea that we'd have two weeks of practice and then a game on the third Saturday.
"He was always very encouraging to all the boys. They're a great rugby family and that's what makes it so special, I think."
He agreed with Best's teacher's recollections of a dedicated child who knew how to have fun without ever crossing the line - "he's come on a lot since then," laughs Dodds.
"He was always what I would call a hard wee nut," said Dodds.
"He was a solid citizen even in those days. He gave his all at everything he did.
"We would have always had him playing with boys a year older than him and even then he would have been standing out.
"He played for our senior side for the first time maybe the year he left school, he travelled down to Dublin with us and came off the bench. He picked himself up a yellow card.
"He was never going to sit back and let anyone walk over him. He was never undisciplined, but he could always give as good as he got."
Mr Dodds says that first Sunday in February, when Best takes on Wales, will be a proud day for his first club.
"There's always a special atmosphere at Rifle Park when Rory is playing, whether that's Ulster, Ireland or the Lions, and it'll be the same against Wales.
"This really does mean a lot to Banbridge."
There'll be those in Portadown College, and indeed throughout Ulster, no doubt thinking the same.