Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby Ulster

I'd the Best of times in 2016... but now I want more: Rory

By Michael Sadlier

Having appeared to have played his last game of the calendar year - he looks certain to be rested for Saturday's clash at Leinster - it seems pretty appropriate timing for Rory Best to reflect on what has been quite a roller coaster 2016 for the Ireland and, occasional, Ulster skipper.

As ever the highs and lows had been played out in the burning glare of performances on the pitch, but in this year it all ratcheted up a notch or three for Best.

And, after some difficult enough times, 2016 has ended on a hugely satisfying upswing internationally with that first ever victory over the All Blacks and then Ireland's most-capped hooker's emotionally-charged 100th appearance in the green shirt for the crowd-pleasing win against Australia.

It had begun, of course, with the Poyntzpass man taking on the mantle of leading Ireland at probably the most difficult time to do so, in the immediate aftermath of Paul O'Connell's departure.

Combining it with leading Ulster gave Best an unenviable workload and after a Six Nations campaign during which Ireland won only their last two games, against Italy and Scotland, he then had to endure that rather too familiar gut-wrenching feeling when the province lost a PRO12 semi-final to Leinster at the RDS.

"It was a very tough start," the 34-year-old admitted.

"Coming in after Paulie, and trying to then do both Ulster and Ireland at the tail end of that season, yes it was a tough start."

He feels that things are now on a much more even keel, boosted, of course, by the success from the autumn internationals, though all the talk linking him to leading the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand next summer off the back of a possible Six Nations title is, rightly, not up for discussion at this early juncture.

Instead, Best is keen to deal with the current situation at Ulster before he reflects on where he is now with Ireland as we prepare to embark on a New Year and all that it has to offer.

"We're not in a position to talk about silverware," Best, who has played eight times for Ulster in this campaign, stated, addressing matters provincial.

"But our ambition is to win something and to do so we have to be in the top four (of the PRO12).

"For us, pushing there is similar to Europe in that you have to win your home games.

"We've already let one slip this season (against Munster) and we can't afford to let another one slip.

"The more you stay out of the top four the more you have to pick up wins that people don't expect you to win (away from home).

"So, home games are the target, and then we have to scrap for everything we can away from home."

An unexpected recent development led to him skippering Ulster in their back-to-back European games with Clermont and last week's crucial PRO12 win over Connacht which came about due to appointed joint-captain Andrew Trimble being sidelined while fellow leader Rob Herring was, naturally, benched for Best.

"It's something I enjoy doing and I don't mind stepping in and doing it," he explained of leading Ulster again before addressing why he gave the role up at the Kingspan.

"I love playing for Ulster and I love captaining them, but it wasn't the right thing to do this season, and Les (Kiss) has been fantastic about it and the two lads (Trimble and Herring) have stepped up well.

"I felt it was probably right, not just for me, but for Ulster, with me being away so much and having the amount of responsibility I have being Ireland captain," he added of passing the captain's armband on which he had already hinted was on the cards after last May's PRO12 play-off loss at Leinster.

And then there is Ireland. There is no sense that he has totally cracked this captaincy thing at international level, just that things have gone reasonably well of late, though this comes with an appreciation that all could change if the results don't continue into the Six Nations.

"It's been very enjoyable," is Best's overall take on leading Joe Schmidt's squad in 2016.

"We just sort of felt that it would happen," he maintained of how Ireland's summer began with their historic victory on South African soil in the first Test of June's three-game series.

"But you can only hope it would happen in that some of the young guys getting the experience early on in tough conditions would stand to us later on. And it did.

"To go to South Africa and win away from home with 14 men for 60 minutes (was great) but in hindsight, we're disappointed we didn't go on and win one more, probably two more of those games (they still ended up losing the series)."

Still, he will always have November and New Zealand at Soldier Field, surely one of the finest performances an Irish side has ever produced, to take the All Blacks' scalp for the very first time in 111 years.

"And then we went and beat New Zealand in Chicago. A couple of people have made comments about how they weren't very good on the day," said Best.

"But you can't decide two weeks previously that they were the best All Blacks team ever, then two weeks later say that they're no good.

"We know the quality of team they are, and the manner we went out and scored 40 points, and you know, it was a similar score in 2013 (when Ireland dramatically lost to the last act of the game) as it was in Chicago, to go out and attack them again except this time win.

"Then obviously, finishing with the Australia game, and with it being my 100th cap, it was very special for me personally.

"The way we went about it, to go behind and still have the confidence in our ability and the players around us, and just the mental fortitude to go back and win that game, it was a very pleasing victory."

So, roll on 2017 and let's see what it brings for Ulster and Ireland's Best man.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph