belfasttelegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Ulster Rugby's Rory Best has belief again as he travels road to redemption

Lining out: Rory Best reflects on his mixed fortunes at Resistancia, Argentina
Lining out: Rory Best reflects on his mixed fortunes at Resistancia, Argentina

There is often a machine-like quality about the modern rugby player, but sometime the facade breaks and the veil slips to reveal the person beneath the athlete.

Take Rory Best, the man we know mostly as Ireland and Ulster's hooker. Consummate professional, leader of men, lineout thrower.

It is easy to define him by what he does, but there are more strands to these men.

Best is the son of farmer John, who is coming to Argentina to watch his son take on the Pumas, but also is dragging Pat around four or five farms on the Pampas to have a look at the livestock and the methods, something of a busman's holiday. Pat is from Middlesbrough, her father used to bring young Rory to Ayresome Park before he dallied with Blackburn Rovers because of an affiliation to Kenny Dalglish and dragged the whole lot of the family by car to a game against Leeds United only for the pitch at Ewood Park to freeze and the game to be called off.

Best would love to join his parents on the Argentinean farm, but the schedule won't allow it. He would also like to get down to Brazil for a World Cup game but the demands of a young family require his presence back on the family farm.

This is the man we will watch on a sideline in Resistencia tonight (7.40pm), with ball in his hands and, to some extent, a team's fate in them too.

He throws, Paul O'Connell catches and life goes on. But, if something malfunctions in the process, a lifter slips or his hand leaves the ball too early it is the No2 who takes the fall.

We sometimes forget how human these international rugby players are, but no one watching Best in Canberra last June was left in any doubt.

"Humiliation" is the word he uses now, not bitterly but matter-of-factly. This man who now has 75 caps for his country, a former captain of his province and a calm and knowledgeable presence around both set-ups had one of those days to forget on a night he was supposed to cherish and remember forever.

Having been initially left out of the squad, Best was called up after Dylan Hartley's Premiership final meltdown, but his tour didn't go to plan.

"I would like to think that I'm reasonably mentally strong but looking back a year out it was mentally a bridge too far for me," he says. "The disappointment of the 2009 tour, I hadn't expected to go but then the injury to Jerry Flannery and still not getting a call-up, then this time round, everyone expecting you to go and playing reasonably well, certainly in the earlier part of the season, and feeling that I was one of the faces of the four nations that had been there starting for his country all the way through the previous four years, that pressure and expectation that I would go, I didn't go and then to be going again.

"It was just, in hindsight, it was too much for me.

"I had beaten myself up about not being good enough to go. You know everyone assumed I wasn't picked because of my throwing and even (Graham) Rowntree was fairly open about the fact it was my throwing that let me down."

Specifically, it was the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens that was pinpointed as, in Best's words, "the final nail in his coffin".

The nadir came against the Brumbies, when he was asked to captain the midweek side on a wet night, with a thrown-together team where Jake White's locals managed the only provincial win over the tourists.

"That especially was a fairly public humiliation, a public event to lose so many lineouts as captain of the team that night, it was very hard to take. It just felt like one mental beating after another I took on that tour," he concluded.

The road back began in Ravenhill, against Treviso, where a try and a functioning lineout set Best back on the righteous path. Behind the scenes, he put in 300-400 throws a week at Ulster and Ireland training and in his converted barn at the farm on the Down and Armagh border. The work paid off with redemption in Paris.

"We had the best scrum and the best lineout, but I don't think we're doing anything overly different," Best says of Ireland's Six Nations performance.

"For me, the big source of pride with Ulster and Ireland is that the lineout stats have been so good this season.

"To come back in that Treviso game I was really, really nervous and it is just good to have the stats we've had with Ulster and Ireland; it's encouraging and it's down to hard work with my throwing but also from the callers I've had."

Trimble wary of running into Argentina brick wall

Ireland have expressed concerns about the facilities at the Estadio Centenario in Resistencia where they kick off their summer tour against Argentina tonight.

Having trained yesterday on the patchwork surface at the first-time Test venue, normally a fourth division football stadium, coach Richie Murphy said the surface on the smaller-than-usual pitch was below par in places, while winger Andrew Trimble is wary of a brick perimeter wall close to one of the sidelines.

Still, Ireland are refusing to use the stadium as an excuse for anything less than a win in their first game since claiming the Six Nations crown in March.

“We'd had reports about the stadium, the pitch is quite bumpy. There is plenty of grass on it but in certain parts it is not as good as you would like it to be,” skills and kicking coach Murphy admitted, echoing Joe Schmidt's assertion the ground would be “challenging”.

“We've a job to do, this is the pitch we're playing on and we have to get on with it. They are all little tests and it will be more testing when they see the stands full of Argentinians screaming at them. I think at that stage they will have forgotten about the pitch.”

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