The Best and worst of times: Rugby star Rory on beating the All-Blacks and how his brother was lucky to survive a career-ending heart scare
As the Irish team prepares for its first game in the Rugby World Cup later this month captain Rory Best tells Leona O'Neill what the sport has meant to him and how he intends to spend some time relaxing after he retires
Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best is the most-capped hooker for Ireland with an impressive 100 international and 179 Ulster Caps to his name. He is one of the most highly respected figures in Irish rugby and is a talismanic figure at Kingspan Stadium. He has always said he wanted to bow out on a high. And there is surely nothing higher than captaining his team in the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
And for the 37-year-old Co Armagh man, who has spent his entire life on the rugby field, it will be a hugely emotional moment.
Rory, who is married to Jodie and has three children, Ben (9), Penny (7) and Richie (4), says he has loved every moment, from when he took those first tentative steps onto the field at Banbridge as a five-year-old.
"I started playing rugby as a child of about five at Banbridge Rugby Club," he says. "Dad played for Banbridge at the time and so did my older brothers Mark and Simon. Between my Mum and Dad, they brought us over every Saturday morning.
"That love of rugby stayed with me all through school. We were at Poyntzpass Primary School in their mini-team, through into Portadown College and then back to Banbridge at various age grades along the way.
"People think that it's a rough game, but during school I wasn't too bad. I broke my tooth, which I still have a fake pillar and post in for, and got various little bumps and bruises but nothing too major. I think I did more damage to myself off the pitch than on.
"I broke my leg falling off a quad bike when I was nine, so that took me off the pitch for a while.
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"There is a perception that rugby is a very rough sport, particularly when people watch international rugby, but we are conditioned to take some of the hits. Obviously the injuries that a kid will get down in Banbridge on a Saturday morning versus the magnitude of the injuries we would get at Ireland would be very different, just because of the force of the game. But rugby has been really good to me and I am very happy that both my sons are playing in Banbridge."
Thanks to Rory and his older brother Simon (41), the next generation of Bests will be keeping rugby fans entertained for decades to come. Rory says he and Simon are happy to step back and let the coaches do their work as they watch from the sidelines.
"My two sons Ben and Richie are playing rugby," he says. "And my older brother Simon's two boys are at the club also. His eldest Jack is in the same team as my eldest Ben, and then Sam is the age grade below that and Richie is a few years before that again.
"I don't coach them. I would have a lot of respect for the guys who coach them at that age. There is a mountain of them running around and it's like herding cats, but they get so much enjoyment out of it. They love it.
"I take my hat off to the volunteers at the clubs. I'm not sure I'm ready to take that step yet. Both Simon and I are happy to be supporters for a bit."
Rory's brother Simon, himself a former Ulster captain and Irish international, had to bow out of the sport early in 2007 after a heart scare. Rory says the family are glad that the issue was caught early and that he is healthy, happy and still around.
"Simon and I would have played together as kids," she says. "We probably didn't play together on the field properly until we got to Ulster, just because of the four-year age difference. I was in the Ulster Academy and he was in the Ulster senior team.
"At the World Cup 2007, Simon basically got an irregular heart beat that caused stroke-like symptoms," he says. "He was very, very lucky. He was rushed to hospital and he was fine. But he had to retire.
"It was around the time when there were a few deaths due to cardiac problems. Armagh's John McCall and Tyrone's Cormac McAnallen had died and there was a child in a school who had passed away due to heart problems. Simon was just very, very lucky. We are just very grateful that it was treatable and he is fine now," Rory says.
"He doesn't play now but he coaches a bit with Banbridge Senior, is involved in committees, he's farming and he's got three kids. We are just grateful that he is still with us.
"It was a big blow for him. I think though that at the end of the day your health puts everything else into perspective.
"He would still kick a ball around with his kids. He has had a lot of really good medical care that allows him to do all that. But as far as taking your body to the extremes of playing rugby, it was just felt that it was a risk that wasn't worth taking. He got a scare and that was it; it wasn't anything more severe. So he just took the hint and went off to do different things. He goes skiing, he farms and he is as happy as Larry."
Rory is currently in Japan gearing up for his first World Cup match next Sunday. This tournament will be his last run out before he retires and he is determined to finish on a high.
"This will be my last professional rugby outing," he says.
"I am going to retire after we finish up, or whenever I finish up, depending on what comes first with Ireland at the World Cup. I am very grateful for what has been just over 15 years as a professional.
"At the same time I feel that it is a good time to step down. I feel like I can still play at the top level on the world stage.
"You always dream as a sports person to be able to play at the top level, but to be able to exit at the top level is something you would always be keen to do if you can. Not many people get to do it. I want to finish on a high. Every team that is attending the World Cup are flying out and that is everyone's dream, to bring the World Cup home. But for us it is about making sure that we produce the best that we can and be able to look back on this tournament and be very proud of what we have achieved.
"But secondly I think that it shows that you have a great mentality that when the pressure is on, to be able to produce your best rugby."
In November 2016, Rory led Ireland to their first ever Test victory over New Zealand, ending the All Blacks' record winning streak of 18 games. He says it was his proudest moment on the pitch and that his last game will certainly be charged with emotion.
"I think probably captaining Ireland to beat the All-Blacks for the first time in history was my proudest on-pitch moment," he says. "I have been incredibly lucky to have been involved in a lot of games, a lot of big games, but that was the first time that I achieved something that no other captain has. That was probably the big moment.
"I think when the final game is over and I'm walking off the pitch I know I will be emotional. Rugby has been such a big part of my life since I was five years old. It has been something that I have loved doing, particularly in the last 15 years as a professional, before that playing in schools and in the academy system.
"It has been a massive part of my life and of my family's life. I am going to miss it, but at the same time I don't think I have very many regrets.
"There are things that I would have potentially liked to have achieved differently but I have no regrets about going about my rugby career. I am very happy and content and looking forward to the next couple of months," Rory adds.
"It will be sad when I eventually walk off the pitch, but I think my body will be incredibly thankful."
Used to crowds of thousands chanting his name and cheering his successes, he says his retirement will take a bit of time to adjust to. But he says he won't miss the early morning winter training sessions.
"You just have to get on with life and get on with enjoying what you have," he says. "I have three kids now and a wife and the priorities will shift a lot more towards them and away from rugby. I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to do.
"But there is no doubt that there will be bits that I'll miss - the high of the game, I'll not be able to replace again.
"But at the same time I'll also have to reflect on whenever the boys are running out in the wind and rain in November, December and January and I'm sitting at home in the heat with a warm cup of tea.
"You can kid yourself sometimes that rugby is all brilliant, it's all big massive games, but there's the reality of the preparation that goes into it, and the time and the sacrifice," Rory says.
"I'll be able to enjoy things that I haven't been able to for a long time."
He says he is very much looking forward to seeing his family, who are flying out to meet him in October, when they join him Japan for his final matches. He says his family keep him grounded.
“My family are coming out to me halfway through October, so I’ll see them in about a month’s time,” he says. “It’s difficult to be away from them for long periods of time. They are of an age now when there is so much happening day to day with them; there are so many changes with them. Even over the last little while. You do miss out on quite a bit and they miss you. It’s hard to leave.
“I think the older you get the more you realise that it is such a short window to play rugby and there will be loads of things in the future that I’ll get to see first hand. But they’ll not get to see me playing rugby live for very much longer. That is what you have to be reflective upon.
“But they have been brilliant. Jodie is brilliant and she copes really well when I’m away and I know the kids cope. At least they tell me they do, which allows me to concentrate on the rugby.
“They have been immersed in rugby since they were all babies, so it’s part of the routine now that Daddy goes away to something, whether it’s an Ulster game for a weekend or an Ireland camp for two or three weeks, or every four years, a World Cup.
“My family keep me grounded. It’s brilliant to go back. I feel that since I have turned 30 my career has almost taken on a new lease of life. Since then I have been playing some of my best rugby and that has corresponded with us starting a family.
“I think that it is really good for me to be grounded. The farm does that as well. You come home and spend time with the kids or go out with the cattle. Because it is important that you don’t get carried away with yourself. You are never as good as people say you are, and you’re never as bad either. You’re somewhere in the middle and family and kids make you realise that both ways.”
Rory no doubt has big plans for retirement, but not before fitting in an abundance of relaxing, golfing and skiing.
“I think at the start I might take a nice break from everything,” he says. “I have a few people that I work with, the likes of Forest Feasts, who will keep me busy for a little while. I’ll spend a little time with the family, I’ll play a little golf, maybe go skiing, and take a couple of months certainly to take a breath and not rush into something. I’ve been an employee of the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Ulster Branch for just over 15 years, so it’s going to be a big change. So I don’t want to rush into something and be miserable. Rugby has given me a little bit of a cushion to be able to take a breath and see.
“I have met a lot of interesting people and you just hope that there might be a unique opportunity somewhere amongst those people that might be a little left field of what I always thought I was going to do — rugby or farming. And it might be something that is a challenge for me.”
He says he will enjoy spending more time on the family’s 1,200 acres farm in Armagh, on which he works with his father and brother, and tending to his herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus cows. He says he will relish returning to ‘normal life’ but will still miss certain aspects of the lifestyle rugby has afforded him.
“I will miss the walking down the street and getting stopped for photos,” he says. “And when a big event happens that you played in, no matter where you go people want a piece of you.
“People like to feel that they are successful in what they do. At the same time, it’s nice to be able to go away somewhere with the family and not to be interrupted — I’m not going to say bothered because when fans want photos and stuff, it’s no bother. I remember being a young kid and a young rugby fan not so long ago and it meant a lot when people stop. But it would be good to get to a point where it is just me and the family. I’ll be quite happy to be tucked away at home with the family and not have to deal with the stress of it all.”
Rory is keen to encourage kids to stay active, and has recently called on families across Northern Ireland to take on the Forest Feast Super Wild Challenge — encouraging kids to get one of their five a day and to see the world through wide eyes, and not wide screens, by getting outside and getting active.
The Forest Feast Super Wild Challenge is a series of 10 activities which have been created by Rory and his family, in partnership with local healthy snack brand, Forest Feast, to celebrate the launch of the company’s first-ever kids’ range, Super Fruit Shapes.
“As a father of three children under the age of 10, I know how important it is to be able to provide my kids with healthy snacks to give them the energy they need to get the most out of life so I’m thrilled to be partnering with Forest Feast to help launch this exciting new range, Super Fruit Shapes,” he says.
“To mark the launch, we’re encouraging everyone — from families and friends to the young and the young at heart — to get up, get out and get active and to take on the Forest Feast Super Wild Challenge. We had great fun creating the list of challenges and many of the activities are ones that we enjoy at home. We hope the challenges help you and your loved ones find the fun in being active outside in the fresh air.”
Suggested activities include playing tug-of-war, taking a walk in the wild, playing tag rugby, cycling, building a den and making an obstacle course.
For more information log on to forestfeast.com/kids-range/