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Ulster legend Rory Best admits he nearly reversed his retirement decision after post-World Cup offers

Ulster and Ireland legend Rory Best after playing his final ever professional game for the Barbarians against Wales (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Ulster and Ireland legend Rory Best after playing his final ever professional game for the Barbarians against Wales (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Former Ulster and Ireland captain Rory Best has admitted he considered a sensational u-turn on his retirement when offers came in after the World Cup before ultimately deciding to put family first.

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The 37-year-old, who was courted by various Top 14 outfits in the past, announced in May that he'd be hanging up his boots once Ireland's involvement in Japan came to an end in the autumn and signed off with a three-match stint in Barbarians colours last weekend.

However, it was while on Baa-Baas duty in Brazil that a potentially lucrative offer to ease high-flying Bristol's injury woes at hooker piqued his interest and began something of a battle for his services.

"Immediately post the World Cup, you're full of (thoughts like) 'I feel alright, I feel like I could keep playing and I want to keep playing," he revealed when launching Specsavers Grandparent of the Year 2019 award.

"There was nothing really, and then Bristol came in and it was almost like a bit of a snowball effect. There were a couple of other options after that.

"I think if I was ever going to go anywhere, Bristol would probably have been the one.

"It was actually quite nice – you think you are done and then you get this option and you sort of go 'Maybe I am not completely done after all.'

"The thought of someone wanting you is quite a nice feeling whenever you are retired or about to retire."

Bristol, who have a heavy Ulster influence through the likes of Best's former provincial team-mates Charles Piutau and John Afoa, as well as a number of back-room staff, are coached by Connacht's PRO12-winning coach Pat Lam and the Banbridge man admitted to a curiosity over working with the former Samoa No.8.

"You look at Bristol and Pat Lam is someone who I admired as a player," he said. "I sort of used to be a Newcastle Falcons supporter, watching him there, and then what he did at Connacht and what he is doing at Bristol.

"It's sort of something that you looked at (doing) if you ever wanted to get into coaching to learn, and to go from Joe (Schmidt) to him would be incredible.

"Obviously with John Afoa, Charles Piutau, Kevin Geary (head of strength of conditioning), the physio is from Ulster as well, Rory Murray, there are so many people.

"For a bit, you are kind of looking at it going 'This is an incredible opportunity.'

"I think in the end, I looked at it and went 'the family are ready to have me home.'

"When you tell the young kids something, that's it. It's hard to change. They are kind of going 'we want to be at home.'

"Ultimately, I wanted to be at home and that was really the long and short of it, as flattered as I was, and, as I said, if ever there was a club you would consider going to at the minute, with what they are doing, that's the team.”

With all now said and done, Best remains a one-club man having represented his native province for 15 years. While he was regularly targeted by French sides over the course of his career, the desire to add to his 2006 Celtic League medal at Kingspan Stadium remained a constant motivation.

"Ultimately, you always had a dream that Ulster would produce something," he said. "There have been some good promises along the way and there have been some fairly empty promises that we were going to do this, that and the other.

"I think after 2011, when we started to get players together, you genuinely believed. We did have a squad that was capable, it just happened that Leinster had a squad that were slightly more capable.

"You talk about looking back with regrets and look, I would have loved to have won more things with the club.

"(To win at the level of) international rugby is incredibly special because you are pitting yourself against the best players in the world, so to win at that level you really had to produce something.

"But when you win at club level, these are the people you spend everyday with. These are the core of your friends.

"To win something with them would be incredibly special, and there is no doubt in '06 that I underestimated that.

"It was my second season, I kind of went 'So this is what professional rugby is about, you come in and play for your province and win things.'

"You took that for granted and that's a regret that I took that for granted."

Just how tempting, though, was the lure of a new challenge abroad?

"There were a couple of French offers," he adds.

"The problem with France is you never really sure if they actually want you. And with Irish players too, they are always a wee bit cautious because there have been a few examples in the past where they go to a Toulouse or a Clermont or Toulon, get a figure and go back to the IRFU and say 'Well, this is what I can get – you need to match that.' And wasting everyone's time.

"But I suppose the first one was Biarritz in and around the time they lost to Munster in '06. When they were European Cup contenders, there was potentially an option there.

"There was another one in Toulouse a couple of years later and then Clermont around 2011 was an option as well.

"It never really went very far because it was always 'Right, let's talk to the IRFU. If we are not happy with what they offer, then it might force my hand.'

"But the IRFU have always been good. I think I was measured enough to know that first of all, I want to play for Ireland and secondly I want to play for Ulster.

"They are the two teams I have only ever wanted to play for. I know you get a lot better managed and looked after.

"Ultimately, the IRFU do pay. Especially if you can factor in bonuses with Ireland, the IRFU pay – certainly back in those days as well as anyone."

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