Rory Best plans to play as long as possible after brother Simon’s career cruelly cut short
Even at 34, Irish skipper is thinking long-term
With memories of the abrupt end to his brother’s career a constant reminder of how precious a life in professional sport can be, Ireland captain Rory Best is entertaining no thoughts of retirement — even after turning 34 this summer.
Simon Best, a former Ireland captain himself, was forced to give up the game suddenly when a heart problem was detected at the 2007 World Cup.
Having experienced numbness, trouble with speech and headaches, the prop played his last game of rugby at just 29.
Recent seasons have also brought enforced conclusions to the careers of the younger Best brother’s Ulster team mates Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, with the Poyntzpass man heeding the lesson to play on for as long as his body allows.
“As long as I wake up in the morning and enjoy coming into training, and love everything about it, I’ll keep doing it,” he said on behalf of Glenisk, the IRFU’s official yogurt partner.
“It’s something I love doing and, it’s a bit of a cliche that everybody uses but, you’re a long time retired. I look at my brother, and he doesn’t necessarily miss the training or going out on a Monday and Tuesday in December and January time, but he misses the big games, you can’t replicate that.
“He gets to watch them but it’s never going to be the same. He had it all taken away from him and it wouldn’t be right if I walked away when I still feel I can play at the level I want.
“It’s crazy when you think how it can all be taken away from you just like that. I still see a lot of Stevie and when you think about how young he picked up that injury, it’s always going to be a real shame.
“Paddy Wallace, he got a lot longer, but he’s another one.”
The career of a rugby star, especially one with the extra commitments of the Ireland and, until recently, Ulster captain, can however be a difficult balancing act.
One of Ireland’s better players at last year’s World Cup, he was named captain for the Six Nations and made history by leading the side to a first ever Test win on South African soil.
It all meant almost a year without a break between his first and last training of the campaign, especially tough when World Cup preparations began just two months after his youngest son was born.
With only a four-week window to unwind, Best and family — wife Jodie is a school teacher and the pair have three young children — were able to enjoy some rare time away in South Africa.
“World Cup years are long, we all know that,” he admitted.
“Last year was especially tough for me with wee Richie being born in April. We were in the play-offs (with Ulster) and we got a holiday after that but I was away from June until the middle of October.
“For a young baby, it was a really long time not to see him.
“Straight into it with Ulster afterwards, I was back and forth throughout the year, so it was just great to get those weeks away at the end.
“Jodie brought the kids out to South Africa and we stayed out there for two weeks. It was really enjoyable to be in such a nice country with your family and not being dragged here, there and everywhere. I’m sure my wife was happy I couldn’t be dragged out to the farm...I say dragged out, to be honest I’m out there more than willingly.
“That’s where we’re really lucky with Ireland. The IRFU may be getting a bit of criticism at the minute but when Ulster played Northampton three weeks ago in pre-season, they had (England captain) Dylan Hartley playing for them.
“I still won’t play for another couple of weeks. That extra time coming after a season that was virtually a year start to finish, that’s why I feel as good as I ever have when I’m 34.”
Since his return to these shores Best and eldest son Ben have been enjoying watching their beloved Middlesbrough back in the Premier League — a choice, he stresses, that was left to his son despite pressure from his wife’s side of the family to switch allegiance to Manchester United — but the hooker knew he was back with a difficult decision to make.
Having skippered both Ireland and Ulster last season, Best believed he would have to give up the captaincy at Kingspan, a choice he stuck with despite his dream of signing off with silverware being scuppered by the PRO12 semi-final loss to Leinster.
“It was one of those that I’d made the decision towards the end of last year in my head but always had these visions of stepping aside with the trophy in my hand. It wasn’t to be and then I went back and forth a bit over the summer,” he said.
“The reasons for me staying on, I realised, they would have been selfish. I love captaining Ulster, I love working closely with Les (Kiss) and Bryn (Cunningham) as their captain but I want to leave something lasting. It was time to impart something onto somebody else. Whenever I retire, somebody would have taken over very quickly, but I think to have the opportunity to pass something on to another captain in these last few years was something I didn’t want to pass up.”
His other goal for his remaining years at the province centre around bringing a first trophy back to Belfast since 2006.
“We’re as strong as we’ve been,” he said.
“We haven’t dropped our standards over the last two years but when you look at what we did the seasons before, we probably didn’t have the same quality. We’re back up to the level now that we were at when we were getting into finals. In fact we’ve more depth now.
“You look at how many were unavailable last week against Dragons, we were still able to put out a really strong side.
“It’s going to be hard for the internationals to get that jersey back.”
Best himself, of course, has no intention of giving up his for quite some time to come.
Rory Best was speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph on behalf of Glenisk, the official yogurt partner of the IRFU. The Irish captain will soon appear on special Glenisk Yogurt packs, offering rugby fans in Northern Ireland the chance to meet the star at a special breakfast event, as well as other rugby themed prizes. Entry details can be found at www.glenisk.com