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Simon Best: 'The 2003 World Cup in Australia was brilliant - France four years later has darker memories'

Simon Best reflects on a rollercoaster career that included two trips to the global showpiece

Proud dad: Simon Best with his sons Jack (left) and Sam after an Ireland Legends game at the RDS in 2017
Proud dad: Simon Best with his sons Jack (left) and Sam after an Ireland Legends game at the RDS in 2017
Green for go: Simon Best in action for Ireland in the Six Nations in 200
Brothers in arms: (left) with brother Rory on Ireland duty
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Barring any untimely injury for the Ireland skipper, once Rory Best makes the trip to Japan next month he and brother Simon will take their combined World Cup tally to an impressive six.

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The pair were not, however, the first in the family to make the trip.

That distinction goes to their uncle, who for the inaugural competition in 1987 somehow managed to convince his new bride that a few weeks in the Australasia winter was a fitting trip to call a honeymoon.

World Cups for the Best family have, it seems, always been serious business.

That first tournament, now 32 years ago, would drag the young brothers from their bed in the middle of the night but it was four years later that the obsession really took hold.

"1991 was the first hands-on experience," recalls Simon. "Ireland v Zimbabwe when Brian Robinson scored four, Japan v Ireland, over to Ireland v Scotland in Edinburgh, Japan v Zimbabwe in Ravenhill, we were at them all, we were really immersed in the thing. Looking back now, I'm not really sure how we got all those tickets now that I think about it."

The most memorable game the young Bests attended, of course, came in the quarter-finals. Ireland v Australia. Gordon Hamilton in the corner and then, heart-breakingly, Michael Lynagh's late try.

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It's 80 minutes etched in Simon's memory.

"It was nearly disbelief," he recalls of his emotions as Ireland almost shocked the would-be winners only for the Wallabies to come roaring back at the death.

"Nothing was expected of that Ireland team, we were hoping for a good fight but Australia had been in phenomenal form.

"That try from Gordon Hamilton, and the reaction of the crowd, I remember the atmosphere so clearly. The ecstasy, the silence when Ralph Keyes lined up the conversion, it was almost like there was electricity in the air

"When they came back to score, everything went in slow motion. Everything had felt like it was building and then it was such a disappointment.

"But it was a superb experience. That tournament, it really cemented our interest in rugby."

When Best was next at a World Cup, Australia would be the hosts and he was a player rather than a spectator.

"I'd got my first cap against Tonga in June and by the autumn I was at the World Cup. It was incredible for me, I was only 24.

"Even the squad announcement, I'd only made my first start for Ireland the day before, playing against Wales in Lansdowne Road.

"I got a phone call from David Humphreys the next morning. I don't remember why it was him that was phoning but somebody must have given him a tip-off to expect the announcement. In those days you were almost still waiting for a letter to come through...it was long before team WhatsApp groups anyway.

"It wasn't something I was expecting but I think the chance to go on that fringe tour if you like in the summer had really helped.

"Tonga and Samoa, we played Australia on that tour too, but a few of the guys who were maybe more experienced had gone home, I had the opportunity not just to play but stand up in training and show what I could bring to a wider squad and that side of things.

"That probably helped me get on the plane to Australia."

A tournament remembered now for Jonny Wilkinson breaking Australian hearts initially struck Best for how wholeheartedly the hosts embraced having the rugby world descend upon their country.

"It was a brilliant World Cup," he says. "Not just for the fact that I wouldn't have expected to go, but as a country and a sporting nation, the supporters' experience, it was a really strong tournament.

"There was a lot of Irish support there, the lobbies of each hotel would be full to the brim and you'd be cheered onto the bus. It was a great experience.

"To get into the World Cup, it was a great memory and a proud moment."

Prouder still four years later in France when he had his brother Rory by his side but ultimately it was to be a tournament of painful memories for Ireland and ultimately the end of Simon's career.

It was when out for a walk with his Ulster team-mate Paddy Wallace that he first experienced tingling in his arm akin to pins and needles and problems with his speech. Now he feels perversely lucky, the symptoms emerging when he had the IRFU's doctor Gary O'Driscoll and some of the best in the world at the Haut Leveque hospital in Bordeaux but at the time the stroke-like symptoms were naturally terrifying. Ultimately, after an MRI, an angiogram and a CT, it proved to be the result of developing an irregular heartbeat.

While confirmation would only come months down the line, he'd never play again. The final appearance of his 23-cap career came against France in the final pool game but, just like the rest of that squad, it's the performances on the pitch that remain a cause of greater consternation all these years later.

"That certainly wasn't part of the plan," he says of hanging up his boots when only 29-years-old. "But the tournament wasn't one to remember anyway.

"Even if I wasn't looking back on it as the end of my career, I would have still been really disappointed by it. I think everyone who was there looks back at it like that.

"We were quite rightly seen as contenders, a lot of fans were coming over for it with high expectations. We had done things that not a lot of Irish teams had done before and it was on our doorstep. The performances were disappointing and you couldn't put your finger on why.

"Still to this day, it's one of the great unknowns. It hangs over Irish World Cups, even last season it was being mentioned. It's a stigma."

The upcoming tournament in Japan - a country where Simon won two caps in '05 - will take him all the way back to 1987, once again those alarms clocks required before kick-off.

While early mornings are nothing new for a man from a farming background, the travel logistics of trying to get out to Japan to see Rory's last run are proving more difficult.

"I think we're going to have to work in shifts or something," Simon laughs. "My parents will certainly go for the early stages and then we can see how things go. We don't usually talk about plans until he's on the plane at least, there's a bit of rugby to be played before that.

"We'll not be missing games. I'll hope to get out at some stage if things go well. We're really looking forward to it. My kids now are around the age I was in '87, Jack's nine and Sam is eight so they're itching to see it, not just with Rory there but just being mad into rugby. It'll be like the first experience I had.

"We're extremely proud that all being well Rory will be out there leading the team. All being well, it works out well for him. They'll be well prepared and hopefully he gets the memorable finish."

All these years later, maybe that would go some way to easing the sting of that Lynagh try. Then again...

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