Simon says Best yet to come for Ireland
If the 2007 Rugby World Cup was a miserable occasion for the Ireland team as a whole, it was a thoroughly frightening experience for one particular member of that ill-fated group.
For in the case of Simon Best, who had played in each of the first three Pool stage matches against Namibia, Georgia and France after joining the fray from the bench, it proved to be a career-ending tournament.
Whilst out walking in Bordeaux with fellow-Ulsterman, Paddy Wallace, he began suffering a loss of feeling down his right side. A blinding headache and difficulties in speaking sparked fears that he had suffered a stroke.
Speaking exclusively to Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire McNeilly in October 2007 in what was his first interview after the terrifying incident he told her: “I started feeling pins and needles, almost a numbness in my right leg.
“It moved up to my thigh and I thought it was a muscle spasm from training. Then, the numbness moved into my forearm and my hand.
“Suddenly, I lost control and I dropped my mobile phone.
“But I thought I was fine. It was only when I realised I couldn't speak that I began to worry.”
In hospital, where French doctors ran tests in a bid to discover what was happening, he suffered a panic attack inside the MRI scanner.
When he came out his speech had gone.
“I couldn't say what I wanted to say. I tried to ask for a glass of water, but something else came out. Nobody could understand a word I was saying,” he recalled.
“It was very worrying, very frustrating, not knowing what was up — and if the speech would ever come back.”
Thankfully it did, with the tests duly proving the problem was not neurological but had stemmed from an irregular heart rhythm, not attributable to rugby.
Nevertheless he was advised to retire. In February 2008, at the age of 30, the prop who had played for Ulster 118 times, led his province to the Magners League title in 2005/06 and captained Ireland in two matches against Argentina in May/June 2007 announced his exit.
He prefers not to dwell on the past, instead looking forward. And last Saturday morning, three-and-a-half years after his decision to quit the game he loved, he watched in delight as Ireland — with his brother Rory to the fore — produced a stunning performance which has transformed the World Cup.
“It has genuinely opened up the tournament in more ways than probably any other game could have,” Simon pointed out.
“Now you’ve got all the northern hemisphere sides on one side of the draw and all the southern hemisphere sides on the other – assuming that all of the remaining Pool games go as expected, that is.”
From an Irish perspective the contrast between this World Cup and the events of 2007 could not be more stark. Ireland flopped horrendously in France. Four years on, people now are talking about them reaching the final.
Best, however, is mindful of the fickleness of the masses and the danger of being overly-negative or too carried away on the basis of one result.
“The mood now is very different to a week ago,” he reminds you. “Don’t forget that after the opening game against the USA, people were thinking that was 2007 all over again.
“The team wasn’t gelling and that seemed to be stemming from a few guys out of form, a few missed kicks and a lack of penetration in the backs.
“But a win like that against Australia has just lifted everybody.”
The fact that the World Cup is being staged on the far side of the globe is a massive plus for the Irish players, he feels.
“In a way they are fortunate that they’re so far away from all of the excitement and expectation,” he said.
“In 2007 we were just across the road in France, which meant we were picking up all the bits and pieces from back home all the time.
“So while they will be experiencing what’s going on among the supporters in New Zealand, the players won’t be aware of just how much people here are expecting and that will take the pressure off them to an extent.”
He spoke to brother Rory by phone after the Australian game.
“He was very tired and a bit bruised and battered,” Simon said. “I think he’ll have slept pretty well on Saturday night.”
As for the current mood in the Irish camp he said: “They’ll be very, very confident.
“A win like that just will have made them very content and very focused.”
I’m so pleased that Rory got such big praise; he earned it
Simon Best is better placed than anyone when it comes to offering advice to his young brother, Rory.
And right now the retired international prop’s recommendation to his sibling is to savour the moment, Ireland’s World Cup prospects having soared following last Saturday morning’s 15-6 victory over Australia.
With regard to the hooker’s contribution to that tournament-transforming Irish win Simon said: “It’s been great to see him get some recognition.
“You certainly felt proud to be able to open a newspaper the next day knowing you were going to be reading something pleasant about Rory, UK and Ireland-wide.
“It was far and away his best game yet for Ireland. He’s had his doubters over the years, no more so than in the past few weeks when Jerry Flannery was coming back after injury.”
Now, with Flannery out of the World Cup, the Ulster hooker is Ireland’s undisputed first-choice number two.
But big brother was keen to stress that Best junior was never dependent on the unfortunate Flannery’s withdrawal to get the nod.
“What a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that Jerry Flannery hasn’t really started in all that many games when the two of them have been available.
“It has always been a ding-dong battle but, when they’ve both been up for selection on merit, Rory probably has been selected more times,” he pointed out.
“The beauty at the weekend is that it was the scrum that won it – and Rory certainly played his part. That was no surprise; he has always been known as a strong scrummager.”
I couldn’t miss final if Ireland get there
How far can Declan Kidney’s Ireland go in this World Cup? Well, let’s just put it this way; although this is the busiest time of the year for grain farmers, Poyntzpass son of the soil Simon Best is thinking about a possible trip to New Zealand for the Eden Park final.
Dad John and mum Pat flew out last week, just in time to see brother Rory play the game of his life in helping Ireland beat Australia, thereby giving themselves a very good chance of progressing as Pool C winners. That would probably see them paired with Wales and, if they came through that, probably the winners of England v France in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively.
Despite having been left in charge of the valuable cereal crop, Simon might yet board a plane for Auckland.
“I’ve been thinking about it, though it wouldn’t be easy,” he admitted.
“With the weather we’ve been having, we’re not in the best place for the harvest at this stage, so I’d say it’s unlikely I could go if we got to the semi-final, but if we got to the final I don’t think I could miss that.”