'If we don't do well this year, then I'm 29 before we get another bite'
A renewed sense of optimism is driving Ulster rugby this season and Rory Best is fired up to seize the opportunity, as he tells John O'Brien
H E enters the lounge at Ulster's training ground in south Belfast sporting a bright purple shiner beneath his right eye and the tidy craftwork of five stitches where his eyebrow should be.
The collision came near the end of their bruising 15-all draw against Connacht nine days ago, BJ Botha's head meeting his as they chased a ball into a ruck. Such are the perils of the trade, he smiles. Not even safe from your own colleagues.
That night in Galway entranced him. There was something about the feral nature of the encounter that was satisfying and ennobling, like one of those old inter-pro games where nothing beyond the pride of the province mattered. It reminded him too of the days he and his brothers would stand on the sideline and watch their dad, John, lead out the Banbridge first XV. Something of the primitive passion of those times lives on, he thinks.
Rory Best has been a father for four months now and, already, he sees the changed perspective fatherhood brings. He remembers the Australian Clinton Schifcofske telling him how important it was to him for his son to see how hard he worked and, when Ben is old enough to understand, Rory wants him to know that, for the privilege of being a professional rugby player, his father must work his boots off.
He has an enduring memory of the day Munster won their first Heineken Cup when Tony Foley was handed over the barrier into the warm embrace of his father, Anthony. How better could you capture the essence of what a rugby life should be about? "I loved that," Best says. "Anthony's boy was old enough to realise what had happened. What his dad had been through to get to that point and how much it mattered. Little things like that stay with you."
Last month Best turned 28 and the years of Ulster mediocrity are beginning to grate. He sees the likes of Stephen Ferris and Darren Cave, the fearlessness and confidence they exude, and imagines he too must have been like that five or six years ago. The years bring knocks and bruises, though, and the wilting doubts that accumulate with them can drag a player under unless he has the mental fortitude to overcome them.
He recently signed a new two-year deal to stay at Ulster, but there were times he thought his future might lie elsewhere. Because he has been a loyal servant and tends a small herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle on his father's farm on the Armagh border, he feared they might take him for granted and regard him as an easy sell. But he needed to know they were serious about building a winning team. Something formidable. Something lasting.
"I'm at a stage where I want to win something meaningful. Not a one-off like the League title in '06. Win something and then next year threaten to win it again. My dream is to do that with Ulster. But I had to think very carefully and that's why I held off a bit to sign. I sat down with David [Humphreys] and Brian [McLaughlin] and they talked about the calibre of player they wanted to sign. Had those signings not happened it would've been a very difficult decision."
They grieved when Tommy Bowe left two years ago, but how could you blame him? Bowe couldn't see then what Best sees now. Ulster were leaking quality players and credibility. "We'd lost Neil Best, Roger Wilson and Neil McMillan. David had retired. Simon was gone. Justin Harrison was gonna leave. Tommy's an outside back wondering where the ball is going to come from. In hindsight, he made a good decision for his career."
Bowe's issues crystallised those facing Ulster in its entirety. While his value to them was immense, the winger endured a grim struggle for recognition outside the province. The year he left Ulster, Bowe was top try-scorer in the Magners League yet he remained criminally undervalued until he had taken flight with the Ospreys. For Best, this was simple human nature at work. Even great players in losing teams can find appreciation hard to come by.
"When Tommy was here, no one wanted to talk about Ulster. We were second or third from the bottom of the League. Munster and Leinster were up at the top. At the end of the day people want to read about good news. So they get the publicity. No one wants to hear about our players. That's the way it is. It's up to us to make people want to talk about us. Create a buzz about how we're playing, the way we're going."
Ulster haven't set the rugby world on fire this season, but they are winning ugly and that encourages them. They dug out victories against the Ospreys, Edinburgh and Aironi, refused to lose against Connacht, finishing games with a sense of conviction that turns close encounters into wins, dour struggles into draws or, at a minimum, losing bonus points.
"It's a mentality we're trying to develop," Best says. "Sometimes and especially up in Ulster I think we're nearly apologetic for being good at something. It's a bit of an Irish mentality as well. Munster well and truly got over it. They'll apologise to you only when the game's over and they've completely thumped you. It's something the South Africans have too. Their mentality is they're always the best. That's the kind of thing we need here."
He reflects with a sense of despair on the League title they won in 2006 and the "dark years" that followed. They finished mid-table the following year and bottom of their pool in Europe. No momentum. No focus. Then last year they signed BJ Botha and he sensed a change. Great, he thought, but how would they follow it up? The answer came with the arrival of Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg and, last week, with the high-profile capture of Ruan Pienaar.
"You see Johann coming in and all of a sudden Ryan Caldwell, Tim Barker and Dan Tuohy are playing out of their skin. That's the reaction you want. It's not those boys saying 'oh look at him getting x, y or z and doing this or that' and it manifests itself in nobody playing well. Him coming in has got the best out of three locks, two of them born in Ulster. That can only be good for everybody."
He sees scope for personal improvement too. For Best, one benefit of last year's neck injury was that his recovery led to long sessions in the gym, an area he'd previously neglected. As a young pro he'd assumed naively that working on the farm had provided all the strength and conditioning he needed. He'd start the season in a blaze of fire and aggression before tapering off as the games became an unremitting slog. He understands now why it was so.
He has no issues with the Irish player welfare system or what Ferris rather disparagingly referred to as "the Irish player resting thing". He sees where Ferris is coming from, but not the wisdom of his words. "Stevie got a bit wound up about it. That's understandable. He's a bit younger. He has this mentality. He wants to play, play, play. Whereas I know the bigger picture is they think this will leave everybody fresher and in better shape for next year. The age profile of this squad is a wee bit older. They need to be trained less and need to play less to be at their peak next year."
It is three years since he assumed the Ulster captaincy from his brother, Simon, and each year he feels himself growing more into the role. As a kid he loved watching Sean Fitzpatrick, not just for the excellence of the Kiwi's hooking, but the way he led from the front, the relentlessly positive attitude he brought. At times Best has wondered if the burden of leadership was something he needed, but his dad and wife, Jodie, would put him right. "If you're not captain," they'd tell him, "you'd just wish you were." It wasn't in his nature to take a backseat.
When the chronic disc problem in his neck was diagnosed last year, Best was told his season would be a write-off. But he refused to accept such a grim prognosis. Then a leading surgeon told him the recovery would take between six and 12 months and he heard only the six. Jodie wondered whether he was being too ambitious, but still he wouldn't listen. He was back playing in less than five. "Nobody saw it," he says. "The medics here didn't. It was a challenge and I just wanted to win it."
He remembers getting a call out of the blue from Martin Rogan. The Belfast heavyweight was suffering from the same condition and told how he too had initially faced a gloomy outlook. As they talked, Best could feel the positive energy surging back and forth down the line. If Rogan was thinking of getting back into a ring and "to get the head boxed off him", then playing rugby again didn't seem like such a daunting proposition. He knows how lucky he was with the support staff around him: Gareth Robinson at Ulster, Brian Greene with Ireland, his surgeon Niall Eames. He thinks too of the long days he spent with Jonny Davis, Ulster's strength and conditioning coach, sometimes arriving at seven in the morning and working right through until five or six in the evening. The unsung heroes, he thinks, nobody gets to read about.
Still, the fact that he has been back playing since January doesn't imply his recovery is complete. Rebuilding his confidence has been as much of a trial as his fitness. He played his first game back for Banbridge, then had a game for Ireland A and, suddenly, he was back in the cut and thrust of the Six Nations. In Ireland's last game against Scotland the lineout malfunctioned and Best was heavily criticised.
Ulster travelled to Cardiff the following week and, again, the line-out creaked. He knew what was coming. "Before the Scotland game the fact that we'd barely lost a lineout in the Six Nations was forgotten. It's all about Scotland . . . the lineout . . . Rory is playing . . . Cardiff the lineout is a problem . . . Rory is playing. It takes a lot to get back from that. And that's where I am right now. I've played a handful of games and feel myself getting better. The confidence is coming back.
"I know what people will say. You miss two lineouts and suddenly you're not playing well. You can't lead the team. You haven't played well since the operation. You try to ignore it but it's in the back of your mind. At the end of the day, I know myself I'm starting to play well again, feeling comfortable on my throws. I'm not at 100 per cent which is where I want to be, but if anybody thinks I'm not working hard to get there they obviously don't know me as a person or as a player."
There is a promise of big days to come now that lends a renewed vibrancy to his work. Aironi arrive on their maiden European voyage to Ravenhill on Friday and Ulster will anticipate a five-point haul to establish their credentials for the season ahead. The following week brings a daunting trip to Biarritz. Last year they missed a quarter-final spot by a single point. Best will be devastated if they don't go at least a step further this year.
"If I finish my career," he says, "and we haven't challenged in Europe, if we've had the odd good result but not been consistently there, that would disappoint me. It's a fear I have and that fear drives me on.
"Maybe because of the injury I've been saying to myself, 'Listen, you're 28, how many more shots are you going to have?' If we don't do well this year, then suddenly I'm 29 before I get another bite at it."
The thing about big appetites is that they need regular refuelling. Rory Best is too hungry to go on waiting.