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It's difficult but the time is right for me to wave farewell, insists Rory Best

 

Real journey: Rory Best announces his retirement at the Kingspan Stadium yesterday
Real journey: Rory Best announces his retirement at the Kingspan Stadium yesterday
Rory Best
Rory Best
Rory Best
Rory Best and Brian McLaughlin
Rory Best
Rory Best
Rory Best
Grand stuff: Rory Best lifts Six Nations in 2018 after Grand Slam

By Michael Sadlier

So now we know. The timing seemed a bit strange for Rory Best to let it be known that his entire playing journey will end after this autumn's Ireland duty in Japan.

And especially so as he still hasn't completely ruled out featuring for Ulster in their Guinness PRO14 knockout game with Connacht.

At times he was choked with emotion and struggled to find words, especially when glancing in the direction of his wife Jodie and their three children Ben, Penny and Richie, the trio all clad in Ulster gear.

Of course it all had to end sometime and Best had already flagged his intention of no longer playing in green come the autumn, meaning that his Ulster future looked somewhat in limbo though it seemed a reasonably safe notion that he intended to continue for a little while longer at Kingspan Stadium after turning 37 over the summer.

Whatever the reason for his decision to call time yesterday, or rather to reveal when his playing time will stop, he was required to put flesh on the bone.

After having to compose himself when clearly unable to handle the initial query, he came back with an explanation as to the 'why now?' moment.

"I always wanted to go out on my terms and I think that this is right for me now," he replied.

"It's a difficult thing to come out and say, but it feels like the right time."

Mind you, Best explained that he had yet to address his fellow Ulster squad members which seemed rather odd and added to the sense that this was a hasty announcement.

"It was tough doing this and the last thing I want is to stand up in front of them and… I'm not that emotional, but I don't want their memory of me to be me breaking down.

"Ultimately it would be unbelievably difficult (for me).

"I'm emotional but I'm not sad, I'm really happy with everything I've done in an Ulster shirt but there comes a time doesn't there?

"I was fairly sure about six months ago and in the time between then there are little things along the way when you go… I think with the Jack McGrath signing and the way we performed at the tail end of Europe and then going so well in the quarter-final, you go, 'I want to play in these'.

"So I was positive six months ago, fairly sure three months ago and two or three hours before this I wasn't so sure but that's the way it is."

We assumed that his time at Ulster for this season was probably at an end after the ankle injury he shipped so early on against Leinster in last month's epic European quarter-final defeat but, again, he wasn't having that yesterday.

"I hope to make it back for, hopefully, the quarter-final (against Connacht) and if not you have to hope the squad perform the way they did last weekend and get us into the semi-final and two weeks more (between the PRO14 play-off with Connacht and a possible semi-final) in terms of the timescale I have makes a big, big difference," he said.

He'll badly want to have another outing in an Ulster shirt, after limping off after just a few minutes at the Aviva last month, before having to don green again for what remains of his playing career.

"We can be immensely proud of where we came from," Best added of that epic Leinster game.

"That was almost 12 months to the day when we went across to Cardiff and got well and truly hammered over there," he recalled of what was apparently a line in the sand moment for the Ulster skipper and his then battered squad.

"It looked then as if there was no future in Ulster Rugby and to turn that around in 12 months and go against one of arguably the greatest club sides there has ever been (Leinster) and to take them right down the wire speaks volumes about how we prepared as a team."

It seems to have been ever thus. Best, even when not skipper at Kingspan Stadium, offering leadership through word and deed.

Not that it has been an easy ride. Far from it. No silverware since 2006 and the Celtic League and just bitter disappointment in replicating that when wearing the red hand.

He's seen many coaches come and go and Ulster rise, fall and rise again before taking another big tumble and now, perhaps, moving up once more to challenge for honours.

Ireland has been a very different experience. Two Grand Slams (one as captain), four Six Nations titles and leading the men in green to their historic first win over the All Blacks in Chicago and then backing it up last November in Dublin.

"You have to look back and be grateful for what you've got," he explained.

"You would have loved to have lifted a European Cup in an Ulster shirt but those Championship memories in the green jersey were unbelievably special."

And the future?

"I haven't given it much thought," he said. "You're making this announcement and it feels like a full stop but it's November (when I stop) so you've got all of summer and autumn to get through so it's a long way away.

"At the moment, for me, it's about concentrating and contributing whatever I can to Ulster for the remainder of this season and then it's a big summer and hopefully a really big autumn for me.

"After that, after being here for so many years I'd like to give myself a little bit of a break.

"You never know what opportunities will present themselves between November and the end of the season.

"It may be a little bit of coaching to see if I want to pursue it for the following season."

His home club of Banbridge - where he has done some coaching before - would be an obvious choice to cut his teeth, while involvement at Ulster might also be something which would be of interest. Punditry isn't entirely ruled out either.

When it's over it will be time for his young family. Ben, Penny and Richie will see more of him as will Jodie.

"Just to get to do things with them," he said.

"Coming back early from Edinburgh last Saturday, getting to watch Ben playing a bit of rugby and Penny doing her gymnastics, those are the things that when you are playing at the top level you miss."

He reckons he will leave Ulster in safe hands and name-checks Iain Henderson's leadership.

His time in the shirt is nearly done, but what a journey.

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