Rory Best has turned himself into a key man for Ulster and Ireland and, maybe, the Lions, writes John O'Brien
Four years ago, he stood on the same nerve-jangling precipice. The year had turned with Ulster a back number in the Celtic League, no longer a contender in Europe, so Rory Best turned his gaze to more distant horizons. The Six Nations offered an invigorating new challenge while, beyond that, lay the glittering prize of a Lions tour berth to South Africa and, for Best, the realisation of a cherished boyhood dream.
Tough to look back now. When the Grand Slam delirium had faded and thoughts turned towards summer, Best found himself the victim of not one savage blow but two. Not being Ireland's first-choice hooker wasn't ideal, of course, but he'd still contributed handsomely to Ireland's cause and, quietly, he composed himself in readiness for the call. The notion that he wasn't among the three best hookers on these islands was too grim to contemplate.
It was David Humphreys who delivered the bad news. "We were training at Newforge and it was announced live on Sky and when we came in, David just said, 'Hard luck, you didn't make it' and of course you have to put on the brave face and say, 'Look, I didn't think I'd make it anyway'. But in the back of your mind, you never know what's going to happen. That was my attitude."
He went to North America instead as captain of an Ireland touring party, a nice consolation prize, landed in Vancouver to hear that Jerry Flannery had broken his elbow and, tantalisingly, the Lions door was open again. A day passed, then another. The wait seemed interminable until he switched on his phone the next morning and learned he had been overlooked in favour of Scotland's Ross Ford. "Don't worry about it," his father said. "Maybe next time."
"It was very disappointing," Best says now. "To have your hopes built up twice and then not go. It was a bit of a fixation that year. That was where I wanted to be and, when it didn't happen, it was very, very disappointing. And obviously this time, you ask any British or Irish player, they want to be in Australia next June and July but, at the same time, you have to be enjoying it and you have to be playing well to go there."
For Best, those two things – playing well and enjoying the game – are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. He remembers how hard it was for Jodie, his then fiancée, living with the self-absorbed bundle of anxiety he'd become and it taught him the value of staying in the moment, not trying to force things too much, a lesson more easily absorbed with the benefit of age and experience.
"I got so focused about it, 'Oh, I must make this tour, this is the pinnacle of rugby'. Whereas this time around, you know, it's about not setting yourself up for a fall. I would love to go. It would be a dream come true, but at the same time I've got to make sure I'm enjoying my rugby and playing well. Then, if someone thinks you're good enough, you go; if not, then at least you feel you've been enjoying your rugby and playing well."
Right now, Best is comfortably ticking both of those boxes. He has capably led an Ulster team from also-rans to consistent European contenders for whom a quarter-final trip to London to face Saracens in April holds no terrors – "no-one's unbeatable," he says cheerfully – and his own form has been of such a high standard that he is the only hooker among the longlist of 15 nominated for European player of the season last week. Happy days.
He has worked relentlessly to be the player he is. A couple of years back, when Jodie was pregnant with their first child, Clinton Schifcofske reminded him how important it would be for his son to know how hard his father worked and the Australian's precious words remain with him. Famously, Best practises his throwing daily in a converted barn outside his home on the Armagh border and it's no accident he is among the three best lineout operators this season with 64 successful throws to his name.
He turned 30 in August and knows that in order to keep adding to his total of 62 caps he has to do everything he can to stay ahead of the chasing pack. Proficient Irish No 2s have rarely been in short supply and when, frustratingly, a neck injury kept him out of the November series, Best watched the newly Irish-qualified Richardt Strauss waste no time in making his presence felt. As with Flannery, he sees only the benefits of such keen rivalry.
"When you get competition you know you have to knuckle down. You know you have to work hard and any mistakes or lack of form, you're going to be under serious pressure and that's pressure you want. Come Saturday week against Wales, whoever starts there's going to be ferocious pressure on them and you need to train yourself in that sort of high-pressure environment. That's what competition for places does."
He has returned to a squad determined to put a mostly unsatisfying 2012 behind them. For Best, there is an echo of Ulster's stagnation in the middle of the last decade in Ireland's stuttering progress since winning the Grand Slam. The same sense of despair he felt back then doesn't torment him in green, but the sense of underachievement is equally profound and the desire to put things right equally as fierce.
He's not hung up on the captaincy issue. From afar he watched Jamie Heaslip do a decent job in November and, deep down perhaps, a part of him would fancy the role too. The point is, though, even in the absence of Paul O'Connell, this Ireland squad harbours a glut of natural leaders and the need to step forward and assume greater responsibility is, as Best sees it, a collective rather than individual one.
He thinks about Saracens again and their respected coach Mark McCall. When Ulster hit the skids after winning the League in 2006, it was McCall who paid the heaviest price with his job. It was Best's first year as captain and, even now, a deep sense of guilt remains. How selfish professional rugby players can be sometimes, he thinks. "Looking around for somebody else to blame," he says ruefully, "except themselves."
Whoever wears the armband, he senses an unspoken desire in the squad not to fall into the same convenient trap. No excuses, no handy scapegoats. From the beginning under Declan Kidney, Best liked the way the coach was willing to entrust his players with a lot of responsibility, and if anything, that freedom has grown as the seasons passed. Time, he thinks, to repay that faith.
"The coach prepares you to play on Saturday but he can't play the game for you. You need to be in a position where as a group you can adapt and deal with various things on the pitch. We have a lot of experience, a lot of players who have won big competitions and played 50-plus test matches. But there's still that spine of youth which you need, that sort of fearlessness that these boys step up in their first cap and want the ball, want to play, want to go and hit things. I think we have a nice blend now."
Last week he detected a sense of urgency about the camp that didn't translate into panic. That encouraged him. Ireland have lost their opening fixture in two of the last three Six Nations and the need to hit the ground running this time is hotwired into their brains. The imperative, Best says, was to get the crucial work done and leave themselves a week for tweaking: "dotting the 'I's and crossing the 'T's'." Mission accomplished on that front.
"We had that meeting in the Aviva last summer and we talked about what we wanted to do and how we can see ourselves getting better, where our faults were. That was one thing we addressed. We felt we didn't get the preparation coming into the Six Nations that we had in the World Cup. Obviously, we had an extended period of time coming into the World Cup but we definitely were – focus is the wrong word – but we went about our business in those preparation weeks before the World Cup differently than before last year's Six Nations."
And so perhaps time will tell, he hopes, that when it comes down to it, there wasn't so much wrong with this Ireland team that a few tweaks here and there, a couple of wins back to back, couldn't put right. He thinks cautiously back to the vital win over Argentina in November, a result that belongs to the past now of course, but from which they can take a certain amount of confidence without getting suckered into believing that, after one game, they have cracked the code again.
"You know we finally got that bit of up-tempo, high-intensity game that we all play and we all want to play so I think we have to take the positives and use them as much as we can," he says. "From an Ireland point of view, with the standards we've set, there hasn't been a whole lot of positives in the last year so I don't think you want to walk away from the positives from the Argentina game for fear of over-confidence."
It has never been Best's way, of course. Ability alone, he always knew, wasn't enough on its own if it wasn't augmented with a diligent work ethic that never took anything for granted. He still loves it too that when the hard work is done or the game gets on top of him, as it tends to do from time to time, he can spend a few happy hours with the prize bulls on the family farm at home and now he has two kids to dote on too. That sense of release has always been vital and precious.
As he enters the autumn of his rugby career, there is a sense of balance that seems almost perfect. He's playing well and enjoying the game, whichever of those things comes first. And, as Jodie keeps reminding him, that's all he can do. The rest should follow naturally and, if not, then it just wasn't meant to be.