Heineken Cup: Rory is the Best Ulster can get
If the sensational Stephen Ferris is the heart of the Ulster team, then Rory Best is the soul. He's a man you want on your side.
When the Ulster players gaze around their dressing room in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night and see Best wearing the same kit, there will be a sense of reassurance. Faith, hope and belief too, ahead of the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh.
That's what Rory Best brings. Nobody symbolises what Ulster Rugby should stand for better than the 29-year-old with all his courage, character, desire, ability and honesty.
And boy is he honest.
Brought up on the family farm in Poyntzpass, the Ireland hooker, who now has one of his own just outside Gilford in County Armagh, calls a spade a spade. There's no bluff, spin or garbage with this most genuine of blokes.
When he speaks about the trials and tribulations of Ulster's recent past, the present and the future you sit up and take notice.
“I'm sick of being in Ulster jerseys and losing or watching Cup finals and us not being involved,” he says with the same intensity that he shows when making fierce tackles or driving runs on the pitch.
“It's time that boys like Paddy (Wallace), Trimby (Andrew Trimble), Stevie (Stephen Ferris) and Chris (Henry) had their time.
“They could have left when others did but they hung in because there are a few things you want to do as a rugby player from here (a) win things and (b) you want to play for Ulster, so if you can combine the two that's perfect.
“I understand and fully appreciate why some players left. They wanted to win trophies, get better and be in successful teams.
“Now that's coming full circle because some players are coming back (like Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson) but right now we have that core group of players who stuck it out when we were losing to the likes of Dragons or Glasgow at Ravenhill and when Munster brought their second team up a few years ago and beat us. All that was soul destroying.
“You spent the entire weekend thinking ‘we're crap'. There's been times like that Munster game when a few boys have been sitting around the changing room feeling down saying 'you know it might be nice to leave'.”
I ask him if he ever considered that himself knowing there would have been plenty of takers. He reveals: “Sometimes I did think about it. You do think it may be nice to go to a team where it doesn't matter so much, you know where you lose and you are annoyed but you move on and think you'll do better next time.
“When you lose with Ulster it's different because it means so much. You feel you have let everyone down because it's your team and you grew up supporting them.”
So what has changed to take Ulster to a Heineken Cup last four clash?
“Better players. We have recruited quality players and surrounded them with home-grown quality players,” says Best.
“The year we won the Celtic League we had a good team but that summer we made a couple of average signings at best and we gradually got worse.
“We got to a decent place last season after making good signings. Then over the summer we signed John Afoa and Jared Payne and got better again.
“Next season we're basically going to be re-signing Jared Payne because he hasn't played due to injury and Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe are returning which should take us to another level.
“What has impressed me is that players are being brought in who want to be the best. We don't want anyone who doesn't have that mindset.”
Back in 1999 Ulster were the finest side in Europe and Best was there to see it having travelling down with his pals from Portadown College, where his rugby talents first came to the fore.
“It was a great day's craic. I've played in Ulster games at Ravenhill and in internationals for Ireland but the atmosphere that day stood out. It was incredible. That's what we want this time,” he recalls.
“There's no doubt that the fans have been great for Ulster rugby. Two, three, four years ago we were a very, very average side that produced big performances in Europe and it was solely because the crowd made such a difference.”
He hails the ‘outstanding' support in the quarter-final victory in Munster adding the team ‘made a statement' that Easter Sunday afternoon.
That was Rory's finest day for Ulster. A win over Edinburgh, however, would knock it off the top spot.
There's a sense that Best has been preparing for this monumental occasion all his life, from when as kids he and his brothers Simon and Mark, played rugby on the family farm and travelled around with their grandad to watch dad John play for Banbridge.
Simon progressed to become an Ulster and Ireland star. Rory followed, just as he did to study agriculture at Newcastle University. Siblings Mark and Rebecca attended the same seat of learning where incidentally their mum and dad met. You can tell the Best clan are a close-knit bunch.
During our conversation at Ulster's training base at Newforge in Belfast, I ask Rory what it's like to be labelled the best hooker in the world, which was the mantle bestowed on him by pundits during the World Cup last year in New Zealand.
Modestly he laughs at the suggestion, then says: “It's nice to hear things like that but those same people were saying 18 months ago that I was rubbish so you have to take it with a pinch of salt. If my wife, my mum and my dad say I'm doing okay then that's good enough for me. I also talk to my elder brother Simon, who was such a big help to me coming into the Ulster side because he had been there and done it.”
Family, farming and rugby are clearly the three key elements in Best's life.
“I like my own time, I like to be with my family and I like to be on the farm,” says Rory, whose face lights up when talking about wife Jodie and his precious son Ben, who will be two in June.
The farm is 70 acres of grassland littered with Aberdeen Angus cattle inspected by Rory as he rides around on his quad bike.
When he hurt his neck a few years ago and was out of action for 12 months the farm was “a nice distraction”. Now fully fit he says he spends about an hour a day in the fields adding, “Dad does the majority of work, so I wouldn't call it a profession.”
Playing for Ulster is. But you know to Rory Best it's more than that. He cares. He’s the soul of the team and he’s ready for Saturday. Edinburgh beware.