Best foot forward
Published 07/06/2014 | 02:30
There is often a machine-like quality about the modern rugby player, but sometimes the facade breaks and the veil slips to reveal the person beneath the athlete.
Take Rory Best, the man we know mostly as Ireland and Ulster's hooker. Consummate professional, leader of men, line-out thrower.
It is easy to define him by what he does, but there are more strands to these men.
Best is the son of a farmer, John, who is coming to Argentina to watch his son take on the Pumas, but also is dragging his wife Pat around four or five farms on the Pampas to have a look at the livestock and the methods – something of a busman's holiday.
Pat is from Middlesbrough; her father used to bring young Rory to Ayresome Park before he dallied with Blackburn Rovers because of an affiliation to Kenny Dalglish and dragged the whole family by car to a game against Leeds United only for the pitch at Ewood Park to freeze and the game to be called off.
Best would love to join his parents on the Argentinian farm, but the schedule won't allow it. He would also like to get to Brazil for a World Cup game, but the demands of a young family require his presence back on the family farm.
This is the man we will watch on a sideline in Resistencia tonight, with ball in his hands and, to some extent, a team's fate in them, too.
He throws, Paul O'Connell catches and life goes on. But, if something malfunctions in the process, a lifter slips or his hand leaves the ball too early, it is the No 2 who takes the fall.
We sometimes forget how human these international rugby players are, but no one watching Best in Canberra last June was left in any doubt.
"Humiliation" is the word he uses now, not bitterly, but matter of factly. This man, who now has 75 caps for his country and is a former captain of his province had one of those days to forget on a night he was supposed to cherish.
Almost 12 months on, it is hard to relate the man sitting serenely in a hotel by the Paraguayan border as if recalling a distant nightmare.
Having been initially left out of the Lions squad, Best was called up after Dylan Hartley's Premiership final meltdown, but his tour didn't go to plan.
"I would like to think that I'm reasonably mentally strong, but looking back a year out, it was mentally a bridge too far for me," he says.
"The disappointment of the 2009 tour... I hadn't expected to go, but then the injury to Jerry Flannery and still not getting a call-up... then this time round, everyone expecting you to go and playing reasonably well, that pressure and expectation that I would go, I didn't go and then to be going again...
"It was just, in hindsight... it was too much for me.
"I had beaten myself up about not being good enough to go. Then I got my head around that and then, all of a sudden, you're going again.
"You turn up and you have niggling doubts, 'Jesus, maybe there's a reason they didn't pick me'. 'Am I not good enough to be here?' And, in any position, but certainly the one that I play, the first doubt: you know everyone assumed I wasn't picked because of my throwing and even (Graham) Rowntree was fairly open about the fact it was my throwing that let me down."
Specifically, it was the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens that was pinpointed as, in Best's words, "the final nail in my coffin".
Somewhat masochistically, he watched the tape back a dozen times and was left even more frustrated. Saracens had read his throws, but there was nothing the hooker could have done to avoid the destruction; it was a systems error.
"When you're looking back at a coach telling you that, you're saying, 'This is not right'. A coach at that level, you expect them to have a better understanding than just win or lose.
"Then, I was looking at it going, 'Maybe there is something wrong with my throwing'."
The nadir came against the Brumbies, when he was asked to captain the midweek side on a wet night, with a thrown-together team where Jake White's locals managed the only provincial win over the tourists.
"That especially was a fairly public humiliation, a public event to lose so many line-outs as captain of the team that night, it was very hard to take. It just felt like one mental beating after another I took on that tour," he concludes.
The road back began in Ravenhill, against Treviso, where a try and a functioning line-out set Best back on the righteous path. Behind the scenes, he put in 300-400 throws a week at Ulster and Ireland training and in his converted barn at the farm on the Down and Armagh border. The work paid off with redemption in Paris.
"We had the best scrum and the best line-out, but I don't think we're doing anything overly different," Best says of Ireland's Six Nations performance.
"For me, the big source of pride with Ulster and Ireland is that the line-out stats have been so good this season.
"To come back in that Treviso game I was really, really nervous and it is just good to have the stats we've had with Ulster and Ireland; it's encouraging and it's down to hard work with my throwing but also from the callers I've had."
Now, he is back ensconced with the Irish team on tour and busy catching up on the calls during the short lead-in to tonight's first Test.
Canberra is a long way away and a year is, as they say, a long time in sport.
He'll have to skip the World Cup, but back being a staunch 'Boro fan once again after his dalliance with Blackburn, he intends taking up an offer of a visit to the Riverside Stadium and will take his son, Ben, with him when his schedule allows.
First, he must execute his duties on a different pitch, in intimidating circumstances like we always expect him to, without giving much thought as to what's going on behind the throw.
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