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Rory Best says 'not my captain' reaction to Jackson and Olding trial appearance made him consider Ireland role

 

Tough time: Rory Best has opened up on criticism he took from Irish fans
Tough time: Rory Best has opened up on criticism he took from Irish fans
David Kelly

By David Kelly

February 3, 2018 should have been a notable highlight in Rory Best's career as Irish captain.

His squad, who had targeted a Grand Slam, were losing their opening match against France until every player contributed to the 41 phases preceding Jonathan Sexton's stunning dropped goal.

Best celebrated the moment with as much glee as his comrades but it was a rare release.

What should have been a stepping stone towards greatness almost proved a bridge too far for the captain.

"That game was probably the least enjoyable win I've had with Ireland," he admits now. "There was just so much pressure on."

So much, indeed, that he contemplated walking away from the captaincy for good.

During the match in Paris, the hashtag #notmycaptain was trending on Twitter before #ledrop took over; Best's appearance the previous Wednesday at the rape trial of Ulster team-mates Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson (both subsequently acquitted of all charges) had outraged many.

The court of public opinion had moved decisively, in concert with other voices, to seek his removal as Irish captain.

Briefly, during the tumult of an extraordinary time in not just Irish sport but society too as a high-profile rape trial and a Six Nations campaign collided, Best contemplated bowing to the pressure.

Now, for the first time, he fully reveals why he did not.

"It's very difficult even if you get a feeling that one person doesn't want you there, never mind there was obviously quite a few," says the man who has captained Ireland 32 times in his 14-year, 117-cap career, and as full-time skipper since February 2016.

"Nobody wants to be in that position, especially when you're representing an island. You want to be that figurehead, the one that everyone wants there.

"You kind of felt that all this pressure is being heaped on you. I was aware of it all and everything surrounding it.

"There was no escape from it because of the magnitude of everything that surrounded it. You are there saying to yourself, 'I'm 35, I've done a lot. Maybe this is the sign to say just go'.

"It then goes back to the fact that I didn't want to go out the back door. I wanted to make sure I went out on my own terms. I felt there was support there for me. You have to get your head around that. I suppose I was a little naive after all that time to think that pressure only comes with rugby, in terms of your performance.

"There are external pressures that you don't ever foresee coming up that just magnify everything. People look for a chink and the easiest chink to look for is the rugby.

"It wasn't like you could go to play rugby to escape it. I felt like the rugby was the one where people could get on me, if I gave them a chance.

"That just left it really not very enjoyable. That was the time when I probably felt I wasn't really that sure. I did think long and hard, it was not a particularly pleasant time for anyone concerned.

"It was such a sensitive subject, it wasn't something you could talk about, nobody wanted to talk about it, so you just leave it to run its course, once I saw the sort of outcry.

"There was support within that, not necessarily for what happened but for me as a captain. That's important because while you want everyone to want you to be captain, whenever you scratch the surface and get down to the ones that really matter, they are the ones in Carton House, The Shelbourne or wherever we happen to be, and that was the sort of feeling I got.

"It's one of those times when you feel that the spotlight is on you and all you really want to do, all your instinct wants to do is, for want of a better expression, crawl under a rock. And then when you come out, you hope that it's all gone away.

"That's what your instinct is. But then you also know, and I hope it's the kind of personality that I have, it was never going to be an option. I felt as long as I had the support from my peers and my coaches, it's a dream of mine to do it and I don't want to give it up."

On the previous Thursday, Joe Schmidt had refused to elaborate on whether he had given permission for Best to attend the trial before the captain decided, in the post-match press conference, to confirm that he had been advised to be there in his guise as a potential character witness.

"We were only a couple of days out from the game and we never really got much chance to discuss that," Best explains. "It was probably more in my own head. There are so many things that go on. Whenever you are confronted with something, you go through every scenario.

"You nearly always revert to the doomsday one. 'Right, if this happens, that's it. I don't know how I can keep going'.

"That introduction to the press conference was where I felt that too many people around me were getting fired at. I wanted to make sure people were aware of the situation as to why I went. It is what it is now. Thankfully, it's gone now. But that is where it came from."

The sporting world and society moved on; now Best has other issues to worry about, but for him no less anxious, the moonboot encasing his right ankle a reminder of a more pressing, physical frailty.

Japan is just within reach.

"The dream of mine was to captain Ireland, that was achieved a number of years ago, but to be put in place as the ongoing captain was fantastic," he said. "I didn't think at the time, I wasn't sure at the time if I'd make the World Cup when Joe first asked me.

"But now that we're on the cusp of it, to have the opportunity to potentially captain Ireland at a World Cup is something that you dream of.

"The coaching staff will have gone through it forensically and they will know exactly what they want when we get together again as a player group.

"We will look at it as well and see what was different. Did we prepare or play differently? Did we take our eye off the ball?

"I have heard a few people refer back to '07, but the beauty of it this time is that this happened the Six Nations before.

"We have got our little wake-up call. There is no point in us going, 'It happened, we will be fine in September'. We will look back at it and find a couple of things. We know we can't start the tournament slowly."

Rory Best was launching Specsavers Audiologists' 'Don't Suffer in Silence' campaign that encourages Irish adults to take a more proactive approach to their hearing health

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