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Rory Best: 'I'd have sacrificed anything to make sure that Jodie, who is now my wife, and I stayed together'

The former Irish rugby captain tells Barry Egan about giving up drink one season because he felt his relationship with Jodie was under strain, setting his leg on fire as a teenager, playing on with a broken arm and life after retirement

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Rory and Jodie

Rory and Jodie

Rory and Joe Schmidt

Rory and Joe Schmidt

Rory with his OBE

Rory with his OBE

Rory with his wife Jodie and children, Richie, Penny and Ben

Rory with his wife Jodie and children, Richie, Penny and Ben

Rory Best

Rory Best

Rory with wife Jodie and son Ben

Rory with wife Jodie and son Ben

Rory Best

Rory Best

Rory and Jodie

I bet Ronan O'Gara or Roy Keane or Rory McIlroy never set their leg on fire after a night on the beer as teenagers. One night in a field in Newry, camping with friends - "It was really an excuse to do some drinking around a camp-fire" - young Rory Best tried to light the fire with petrol. And his leg caught fire. "I still have the scar on my leg from the burns!" he laughs, adding that he eventually got a taxi into Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, where he told his poor parents.

"A lot of my issues came around enjoying a drink and sometimes that went a bit far," says Rory, who was born on August 15, 1982 and brought up on a farm in Co Armagh.

On the 2013 Lions tour of Australia, going 'a bit far' involved Rory vomiting in the lobby of the team hotel at 3.30pm after having been drinking all night and all morning. (Four years later, he was awarded an OBE for his services to rugby.) English back-row James Haskell was heard to exclaim in the direction of Rory: "He's been sick. We need to get some cat litter for Felix. He's throwing up." "That was the end of the whole tour," he laughs. "So everyone was as bad as each other. I just enjoyed the craic. I played rugby as a youngster. When I first came through there was no professional rugby. Professionalism came in 1995, 1996. I was maybe 14 or 15 then. These kids are being told now at 14 or 15, you need to be doing this, you need to be training this amount."

Without encouraging young people to go on the lash, is rugby not a bit too corporate nowadays?

"That's, I suppose, my point. And I was really lucky in that myself and Tommy Bowe (the Monaghan-born former Ireland wing) came through at roughly the same time - I am a little bit older than him. We played the same underage teams together. That's the thing. We actually got to enjoy… I won't say a healthy university life!" laughs Rory, who studied agriculture at the University of Newcastle. "But a university life where you actually met friends and you got to go out. You got to have a bit of craic."

He did, however, give up alcohol for "the 2007-08 season".

"There was the rugby side of it," he says, "But there's also a side where I felt that the relationship was strained" with his long-term girlfriend Jodie, who would later become his wife. "I'd be out on Friday night and you know what it's like. On Saturday night we'd go to the cinema together and I'd fall asleep the whole way through because I would be so tired. And I knew she was getting p**sed off."

When you come up into the Ireland squad from playing for Ulster you feel maybe a bit inferior

Jodie obviously loved him at some deep level. She could easily have told him she'd had enough, I say.

"And she would have been well within her rights to do so at the time. But then you talk about our relationship, part of the sacrifice was for the rugby, but a big part of it was to make sure that we were all right, because I would have sacrificed anything to make sure we stayed together. It's only when you stopped that…like, we used to go and play squash together and go for walks in the evenings. I had energy to do stuff like that."

Is Rory as competitive with Jodie when he's playing squash as he was on the rugby field with Ireland?

"Oh, aye!" he laughs. "When we went to Dubai after we got engaged, we were playing tennis and I was beating her and I switched from left-handed to right-handed and she is very competitive and she went bananas that I was even beating her right-handed. She said, 'I'm not playing this. This is ridiculous!' And she walked off the court!"

Jodie Bell and Rory Best met in geography class at school. They were married in Richhill, in July 2009, with a reception in a marquee at the Palace Stables in Armagh. Not everyone felt they would get that far.

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Rory with his wife Jodie and children, Richie, Penny and Ben

Rory with his wife Jodie and children, Richie, Penny and Ben

Rory with his wife Jodie and children, Richie, Penny and Ben

Rory writes in Rory Best: My Autobiography that he can "remember our careers teacher giving a talk about how to choose which university to go to and telling the class not to base it on current relationships. 'For example you, Jodie. It would be madness to pick the same university as Rory, because there is no chance you will stay together anyway, and you don't want the rest of your life dictated by a decision made now', the teacher said to her with a smile."

As a player, Rory had, he says, an in-built insecurity. An inner voice would tell him 'this is the day that I am going to lose my place in the team'. This is coming from one of our true sporting greats, who represented Ireland on 124 occasions - 38 of them as captain. He led his country to a Grand Slam in 2018, and to a first win over New Zealand in 2016.

In his extraordinary new book, Rory writes that his friend and Ulster team-mate Darren Cave believed that "the foundation stone of my success and longevity had been fear". Ahead of the World Cup in Japan last November, Rory went to hypnotist Keith Barry to help him overcome his self-doubt.

Where does he think the fear originally came from?

"It's hard to know. When you come up into the Ireland squad from (playing for) Ulster you feel maybe a bit inferior. For my first Ireland cap there was four or five Ulster players in the (match) squad. But we were on the bench. The team was basically half Leinster and half Munster. You almost feel a little bit of, 'These guys are class'.

"I remember walking into my first Ireland camp and seeing people who we had gone as a family to watch, and I don't know if the fear came from there. As a captain you can't show the doubts. So, a lot of my psychology was trying to be positive, but the reason you do it is because those fears and doubts still arise. It is how you deal with them. I feel I was able to deal with them, but it doesn't mean that they are not there."

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Rory and Joe Schmidt

Rory and Joe Schmidt

Rory and Joe Schmidt

What was it like for Jodie to live with someone like that? "She was a bit like you. 'Are you joking me? You have played over a 100 times now or over 50 times now and you are picked for a reason!'" he says.

Equally, if Rory had spent his days at home with his feet up on the couch saying to his wife 'Darling, aren't I great?' he wouldn't have been the great player he was.

"Obviously I have a lot of skill, a lot of natural skill but I look at that Ireland squad I was a part of - especially the Grand Slam one - and I don't think I was the most talented player there. But I think I had an edge and an attitude about me that was maybe born from all that," he says.

There is a story in the book that a tree fell down on Rory's farm before a game and Jodie wouldn't tell him lest it would upset his match preparation. Was he that entrenched in what he was doing in rugby that he couldn't be told such things?

"Yeah. But you know what? I probably would have been all right but she wasn't willing to take the risk that it would annoy me… whenever something sort of throws me off a little bit, it might have an effect and if I ended up not playing well, and she'd go, 'If I hadn't told him'. Who knows! Blame the tree!" he laughs.

In his foreword to the book, Joe Schmidt writes of Rory's "competitive mettle, after breaking his right arm in a tackle on Steven Luatua" against the All Blacks in 2013 becoming "folklore. Holding his injured arm, he scrambled back into position, ready to defend, before looking to clean out the imposing All Black tighthead Charlie Faumuina" at a ruck.

Eddie O'Sullivan in his punditry for RTE said: "Here is Rory Best with a broken arm, coming in to clean out a ruck. That is extraordinary. That is incredible commitment."

"I remember it happening," Rory says. "The adrenaline blocked out the pain. But it almost felt like a bit of a dull thud. As soon as it happened, I was looking down and my arm was kind of hanging there, and every time I went to move it I had these strange feelings. I just knew it wasn't right but the pain wasn't that bad. I felt like I could still go. I remember thinking, 'Well, this is New Zealand. If we go down to 14 men because I'm on my knee, they're the team that will exploit that'. So, I just thought, 'Get in the line, try not to show that you are sore somewhere because they will also run at you'. And then of course we turned the ball over right in front of me, so I had to go into the ruck."

With a broken arm?

"A broken forearm, yeah," he smiles. "Basically what I'm trying to do is get under you and drive you back over the top of the ball. Basically I just tucked it (the arm) in. Really until the whistle goes you can't get attention. So, then we turned it over and kicked it out and then I took a knee and the doc came over, and straight away went, 'That's not good. You need to get that off'."

Rugby heroics that become folklore notwithstanding, Best believes that the toughness of his job for Ireland was nothing compared to what his mother Pat did, as an English woman working in the probation services in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; she was later awarded an MBE.

"That was one of the brilliant things about my upbringing: it never really affected us. She went to work," he says.

"And it is only now you look back and you can say that about your parents: you don't really appreciate them until you become a parent yourself. When I think about mum… she never brought any of that home."

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Rory with his OBE

Rory with his OBE

Rory with his OBE

The Troubles did find their way to Rory's home town of Poyntzpass, when in March 1998, Philip Allen and Damien Trainor, two best friends, a Protestant and a Catholic, were murdered by LVF gunmen in their local pub, the Railway Bar.

“We all knew them. One of them, his mother was the cook in the primary school I went to. There was a wee friendship group there, and the guy who worked on our farm was part of it,” says Rory, adding that his older brother Simon “would have been on the edge of that. So, we knew them really well. We knew both families”.

“In a little village like ours, everyone knows each other and everyone knew them,” he says. “One of the guys who was shot dead, his family had the mechanic’s garage there.

“But in terms of my childhood, when I look back now, my mum driving from Belfast and getting in at six o’clock and making sure that the dinner was ready so that we could all sit down together — those are the things you take for granted when you are younger. You’d be sitting there going, ‘I’m starving! When’s dinner ready?’ You had no concept that mum had just driven for an hour to get home. Those are the sort of sacrifices that were made to make sure that we had a happy childhood.”

Rory adds that his earliest childhood memory was playing rugby in the garden. Another memory is sitting in the back of the car.

There is no good to come of Twitter

“I was always in the middle and (brothers) Mark and Simon were either side. And we used to just fight. And now I can see myself driving and the kids are the same,” he says referring to Ben, Penny and Richie, aged nine, seven and four.

I spent almost two hours with Best last week in Dublin. A more charming man you couldn’t hope to meet. There was a lovely humanity, an engaging vulnerability to him too.

When Rory wasn’t picked initially for the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia — he was called up after England hooker Dylan Hartley was axed from the squad after receiving a red card in the Aviva Premiership final — he was devastated.

“I was, yeah,” he says. You cried your eyes out, I say. “Yeah, I did.”

That says something about the kind of sensitive soul that Rory Best is: tough guy in the ruck, plays with a broken arm, yet cries like a baby when he doesn’t get picked.

“I don’t cry very often but that was one I will never forget. Having to pull in to the lay-by to cry before I got home. My wife was crying. That’s the thing, because I knew when I got home I would have to be the one to say, ‘It’s all right’. Because I’m always the one to say, ‘We can find a way to get beyond this’. I knew when I got home that I would have to be that.”

And would he believe it?

“Sometimes you can’t see it,” he answers, “but I would always think that there is a way to get beyond this. What age was I then? 30? 29, maybe? I did truly believe that that was my last roll of the dice with the Lions because of my age (he went on the 2017 tour to New Zealand). People had you convinced that when you turned 30 (you were finished)… It used to be IRFU strategy that when you turned 30 they basically put you out to pasture, and it was irrelevant how well you were playing.” The farmer put out to pasture, I say. “Yeah exactly. I’d be out with the cattle again!”

Is Joe Schmidt right when he says in the book that Rory “masquerades” as a farmer? “We have a few farmers in the Ireland squad that say they’re farmers but haven’t been on the farm in a while. Och, Joe loves to say that to me! You know what, ever since the kids were born I kind of have been (masquerading), because you have to concentrate on the rugby.”

Rory played his last ever game in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by New Zealand in November. Is he like a caged tiger, or at least an enclosed farm animal, now that he no longer plays the game he loves?

“I’m not at all, because I knew from a good time before the World Cup that the World Cup was going to be the end for me. I felt I had given everything I had and I was not sure I had a lot more to give. Whereas I think it is different for people who retire a little bit early or retire with an injury and still feel, ‘Oh, I could still be doing that’. I don’t think that.”

When Rory took over the Ireland captaincy in early 2016, there were one or two morons on social media. One asked on Twitter, ‘why is a fat Protestant captain of Ireland?’

“It says a lot about Twitter. I am surely not alone in this… my lesson from that was that there is no good to come of it, but if you had sat here in 2013 or whatever and said don’t look at Twitter, there’s no good that can come out, I’d have gone, ‘wise up’,” he says. “If you look under rocks, you will find enough people (to say these kind of abusive things). It’s the minority.”

During the 2007 World Cup, Rory’s big brother Simon, a prop, suffered a transient ischemic attack and subsequently had to retire. “Guy O’Driscoll — who is Brian’s cousin — had been my doctor at underage level,” Rory says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. He is in good hands. He’s safe’. I trusted him and that was good enough. It was only when it became evident that he was going to have to retire that it hit home.

“Around that time there was a guy John McCall from Armagh Royal… he just dropped dead (from cardiac failure, while playing for Ireland at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004). You go, that is really sad, really awful for the family, but you never really think it is going to affect you.

“And then when I got home from the World Cup and got a full extent of the severity of it, I went, ‘That could have been Simon’. That scares you a lot when it is your family. You can’t escape the fact that we were really lucky as a family, that Simon got a scare and got a second chance at it.

“He is now great and our kids are all about the same age and they all play mini rugby together. Simon has two boys and a girl.”

Rory attended the infamous trial in Belfast in 2018 where his Ulster team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of rape charges. He was asked to be a character witness for Mr Jackson, but did not give evidence. He wrote about it in the book.

“It is a chapter in my book because I felt it had to go in,” he says now. “The reason is because it answered a couple of those questions that people might want answered, but everyone needs to be allowed to move on from it and that’s why if you don’t mind I don’t really want to make any comment on it.”

Moving on to less controversial topics, what is the secret of Rory and Jodie’s long and happy relationship?

“I do what I’m told!”

What TV are they watching currently? “We’re in the middle of Love Island, I’m afraid to say. I loved things like Line Of Duty, Entourage and Game Of Thrones. Whenever we get a bit of time in the evening, by the time we put the kids to bed, you just want something simple.”

Is it sometimes easier to clear out a ruck with a broken arm than it is to get three kids to bed?

“Yeah! At least you can control what you are doing when you’re going into the ruck.”

You need to get Joe Schmidt on the phone, I joke. Go in hard! Go in early! “You just need to get them in there!”

Rory laughs. “The kids are a challenge. But, sure, they’re great fun.”

As is their daddy’s book.

Rory Best: My Autobiography is published by Hodder this week in hardback, £19.99. Rory will be doing a book signing in Eason’s Belfast tomorrow at 1.30pm

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