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Rory Best will leave as one of Ulster's finest and may get World Cup dream

Decision made: Rory Best at the Kingspan yesterday after announcing his impending retirement
Decision made: Rory Best at the Kingspan yesterday after announcing his impending retirement
Into battle: Best leading Ulster out against Leicester at Welford Road in January
Rory Best
History: Best playing for Ulster in the last game at the old Lansdowne Road in 2006
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln read Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Jack Kyle and Rory Best. Ulster Rugby's Mount Rushmore now stands as good as cast in stone.

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Best, who officially confirmed yesterday that he'd be calling time on his playing career after the World Cup in Japan, may well have already played his last game for his province depending on his ankle injury but will walk away with a legacy that can stand beside almost anyone to have pulled on the white jersey.

There's no doubt that the 36-year-old has shared a changing room with players who possessed more innate sporting talent but, in terms of impact on the organisation, the Poyntzpass man is unrivalled in the professional era, while few can match his sheer competitive spirit.

Best has been a player who not only set a high standard but demanded that those around him matched it, often dragging the team up by its bootstraps.

For years there have been jokes about his powerful standing within the Ulster squad. Whether it be the sanctity of both his peg in the changing room and parking space at training, or the idea jokingly put forward by Andrew Trimble on the former winger's podcast that even in retirement his first thought when donning an outlandish shirt was 'what would Rory say?', Best has been depicted as an all-encompassing overseer.

Put simply, it has long been the belief both within and outside of Ulster, that everyone was simply better when Best was casting a watchful eye over proceedings.

He stands as one of the most inspirational on-field leaders the province has ever known, one who saw the side through their lowest ebb this time last year to emerge on the other side in the promising position which they now find themselves.

When in a green jersey, he has forged a reputation on the world stage. Having long been Ireland's most-capped hooker his second act at Test level has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Captain for the side's only two victories over the All Blacks, their only win in South Africa and one of only three men to lead the side to a Grand Slam, Best has succeeded in the seemingly impossible, following on from legends Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell having assumed the captaincy in 2016.

His commitment to the cause was perhaps best summed up not in those unforgettable wins over New Zealand but in a loss to the same opposition in 2013 when he tried to play on with a fractured arm.

For all his achievements, there have been lows to endure for Ulster's only Irish centurion. He was in his late 20s before finally being able to truly call the national number two jersey his own, while selection issues were to the fore again when he was initially left out of the 2013 Lions party and kept outside the Test panel for both of his tours with the famous invitational outfit.

As recently as last year, his appearance at the rape trial of acquitted team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding made ripples beyond the rugby world, the subsequent social media backlash leaving Best to contemplate abdicating the Irish captaincy.

But perhaps the nagging regret in his own mind will be all those near misses with the team that meant so much to him.

Barring recovery from injury and an unlikely PRO14 title for Dan McFarland's side, Best's final Ulster season will end in the same way the last 12 have…without a trophy. The 2006 Celtic League remains his sole piece of club silverware, the only player of the current squad to have won a club medal with Ulster.

While yesterday felt like the bringing down of the curtain, there is still the small matter of the World Cup and the potential for the ultimate fairytale finish.

To bow out on the game's greatest stage is a right afforded to only a few - if he were to do so having guided Ireland to glory in Yokohama it would no doubt be considered a case of saving the best for last.

But as his career at Kingspan draws to a close, so too it feels does an era in the side's history.

Best's announcement follows hot on the heels of similar decisions from Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Chris Henry and Darren Cave.

The first professionals from those earliest intakes to the Ulster Academy are now all departed, the set-up now unrecognisable to the day they first walked through the doors of a pre-redeveloped Ravenhill. In these changing times in BT6, Louis Ludik, the South African who arrived in 2014, now stands as Ulster's oldest player owing to his 32 years - 28-year-old Craig Gilroy is improbably their longest-tenured player.

Stalwarts of the team have departed with unprecedented pace and now the side will forge on without the man who for so long has felt like their heartbeat.

In his absence, Kingspan Stadium will initially feel something of a different place.

In Rob Herring, his on-field replacement is already in-house and the naturalised South African's recent fine form is a timely reminder that he is a talented international and leader in his own right, one who would have a good few more caps for both club and country if not for the enduring presence of Best.

In Adam McBurney and John Andrew, there are promising youngsters who will no doubt benefit from the added game-time.

But to focus solely on who will pack down between Ulster's props would feel somewhat reductive, ignoring the considerable shadow the skipper's presence casts over everything that occurs in Ulster Rugby. A player of his standing and impact cannot be replaced by just one man. There is, after all, only one Rory Best.

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