Sinead Kissane: In the Best of times and in the worst, it's resilience that shines
Published 19/11/2016 | 02:30
During the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday Rory Best led the Ireland players around the north end of the pitch in their final training session ahead of today's game with New Zealand. The Ireland skipper ran past the spot where he grounded the ball for Ireland's second try in the 2013 game with the All Blacks. That day, three years ago, Best showed his drive when he scored after 10 minutes in a move which started with a deft wraparound pass from Best to Cian Healy.
That day Best also showed the pain he would go through for the team. Less than four minutes after breaking the All Blacks defence, Best broke his arm in a tackle. It didn't stop him playing on.
And 15 seconds later he burrowed himself into a ruck. Best waited until there was a break in play to call for help and a minute later he walked off the pitch with the end of his jersey wrapped up over his broken arm.
It was this act that Joe Schmidt recalled in the recent RTE programme 'What We Did Last Summer' as he discussed the decision to make Best captain after Paul O'Connell's retirement.
"I knew that he was keen to be captain," Schmidt said. "On the pitch he's so competitive. I was watching the last time we played the All Blacks and he broke his arm and he played on."
Tests against New Zealand have been important landmarks in Best's career. Recently his brother, Simon, recalled them watching Willie Anderson lead the charge against the Haka at Lansdowne Road in 1989 and being at Ravenhill to see Ulster play New Zealand when they were kids.
Rory made his debut off the bench in the 45-7 defeat to the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in 2005 but it was the Tour of New Zealand a year later which was the making of him. With 20 minutes of the second Test left, Best was told "get stripped off, you're coming on" for Jerry Flannery.
For 20 minutes, Best stood on the sidelines in his Ireland jersey, ready to go but he never made it on. There was a mistake: management meant for Neil Best to come on, not Rory.
"It was decision time for me and I decided to put a lot more emphasis on my fitness," Best said in an interview earlier this year.
"That summer was the moment when I felt I was not going to make it unless I changed my approach. I am not the quickest on the pitch, and I am definitely not the strongest, so I had to be better in an area than anyone else and that was when I tried to be fitter than everyone else."
Unlike his Ireland captain predecessors Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, Best wasn't a nailed-on starter when he broke into the Irish team and had to fight for the No. 2 jersey particularly with Flannery.
It was competitive between the pair. At a fitness session in Australia during Ireland's tour in 2008, Best and Flannery were the last two players left in a running drill to see who could last the longest.
"On and on the running drill goes until Rory touches the line just before Jerry, and gets back to the next line just before him. Rory keeps pushing it and gets back to the next line a metre ahead of him," Stephen Ferris recalled in his autobiography 'Man and Ball'. "Jerry pulls out and Rory runs and touches another couple of lines, just to rub it in". Best was named as starting hooker for the game against Australia the following weekend.
In the 2009 Six Nations, Best was behind Flannery in Declan Kidney's pecking order. When Kidney decided to shuffle his side for the second-last game against Scotland, Best was one of the four players brought into the starting 15. Best performed well against Scotland.
But for the Grand Slam decider against Wales a week later, Best was dropped and Flannery brought back in.
In 'No Borders' Best recounted the conversation he had with Kidney: "Deccie said, 'I'm going with Jerry, I'm sure you have some questions.' I said, 'No,' and I got up and walked out. I said, 'I don't want to hear it'. He wanted some comfort from me that it was OK, but it wasn't OK". When he came on against Wales Best played his part especially with the perfectly executed line-out ball to O'Connell which helped set-up Ronan O'Gara's winning drop-goal.
One of the low points in Best's career came hand-in-hand with what should have been one of the highs. After missing out on selection for the 2009 Lions squad to South Africa, Best wasn't named in the original squad to tour Australia four years later.
Best admitted that not being chosen "was as low as I felt". But Dylan Hartley's suspension meant Best finally got a Lions call-up. Warren Gatland named Best captain for the Lions mid-week game against the Brumbies. However, Best endured a horrid time during line-outs in the first half and was taken off before the hour mark. The Lions lost that game which was their first defeat of the tour. After that match, Best looked broken. But it didn't break him. He went back to Ulster for pre-season and worked even harder on his line-out throwing.
Because Best has had to pick himself up after set-backs in his career, he has a knack of doing the same for his team-mates. When South Africa went 13-10 up on a 13-man Ireland in the first Test last summer, Best called his team-mates together. "I remember Rory turned to us underneath the posts and said 'If you want a challenge lads, here it is, just think of the reward if we manage to pull this off'," Mike Ross said. Best framed Ireland's disadvantage as an opportunity and Ireland went on to show the kind of resilience Best has been demonstrating throughout his career.
Today Best will play for the 99th time for Ireland. If being a pro rugby player is essentially a survival of the fittest then Best has shown immense durability. He fought his way into the team, he became a leader and then took over the captaincy at a time of transition post-2015 Rugby World Cup and helped guide a relatively inexperienced squad in South Africa.
He is the first man to captain Ireland to a Test victory in South Africa. He is the first man to captain Ireland to a win over New Zealand. Best stands out because he fits in.
Maybe his role with Ireland gets overshadowed when you've got the class of Joe Schmidt as a head coach and Andy Farrell among the coaches. But it is Best and the other leaders who drive Schmidt's game-plan during the most important time - game-time.
"He's a guy whenever he speaks, people listen, he just demands respect and authority and he also knows the game unbelievably well," Andrew Trimble said this week about his captain.
"He doesn't just get those attributes, he's worked hard for those, he's earned those and rightfully so."
Trimble is right. Best has earned those attributes. And they've made him the captain he is today of this history-making (and history-chasing) Irish team.
And, who knows, maybe the best is yet to come.