Best of both worlds: How the Irish rugby captain is happiest at home on the farm
With 100 caps in the green jersey, Rory Best is a rugby player of international renown - but one with zero interest in the celebrity lifestyle. Ahead of today's game against France, the Ireland captain tells our reporter why he prefers working on the farm to running around on yachts, and reveals his one rockstar moment
In a world where sportsmen are increasingly known for their ostentatious displays of wealth - diamond football boots, lavish carnival-themed christenings - there's something very charming about what Ireland's rugby captain considers his 'most showbiz' moment.
It takes him a torturously long time to come up with an answer. Rory Best is, for example, most definitely not a fan of dropping the 'Do you know who I am?' line to get him into high-end restaurants at short notice. "I'd be mortified doing that," he says, sounding audibly horrified. "All I'd be able to think of is, 'What if I said who I am and they went 'who?'"
Eventually the Ireland Captain comes up with something. "I looked at my wardrobe about a year ago and suddenly had the realisation that every suit I owned was either an Ulster one or an Ireland one," he reveals. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous', so I went and got tailor-fitted for three or four suits in Belfast and spent the day being measured. I felt a bit like a rockstar doing that."
It's not the sort of answer that will make headlines, but then limelight-seeking isn't something that we've ever associated with the 35-year-old hooker. Since 2011 he's been a stalwart of the Ireland side, one of only a handful of players to join the elite 100-cap club in the green jersey. He has captained the side since 2016. He's also only the fourth player to notch up over 200 games for Ulster, where he was reappointed captain last August. On the pitch, he's undoubtedly one of the most respected, athletic and inspiring forwards in the international game - something that will no doubt prove important when Ireland line out against France for their Six Nations' opening game this afternoon.
His sporting achievements have more than earned him the right to a little bit of a swagger, perhaps even the odd bit of diva behaviour, and yet Rory Best remains resolutely understated and down to earth. He still considers himself the North's lesser known 'Best' (people regularly ask him if he's related to George) and instead of flogging the pun-tastic potential of his name, he reckons the best thing about it is that it takes him a short time to sign the 350 shirts that need to be autographed when we speak ahead of the Six Nations.
Ahead of our interview I receive an email from the PR co-ordinating our encounter that states, "Rory's up for speaking about everything". This is most definitely not a staple phrase in 'celebrity' interviews. Really? Everything? My eyes light up at the prospect. 'Great,' runs my internal thought process, 'I'll ask him about that scandal…oh, no wait, that's not him…maybe the Twitter spat with….no, that's not him either…'
Best chuckles when I confess that I can't unearth any titillating misdemeanors to quiz him on. "Ha, it depends who you talk to! Just don't go digging too deep for scandal," he replies mischievously. He attributes the lack of metaphorical dirt in his life to his more literally mucky life. Home is his beef and tillage farm in rural County Down, where he lives with his wife, Jodie, and their three children, Ben (seven), Penny (five) and two-year-old Richie. "Maybe it keeps me out of a little bit of trouble," says Best. "I moved out of Belfast years ago and I like being in the country, close to home and close to friends. It's a bit of a trek in every day but when I get home and close the door behind me, I'm surrounded by fields and it's very relaxing."
He doesn't use the phrase itself, but being a 'xennial' has also helped him keep a relatively private, and scandal-free life. Born in 1982, the Ulsterman falls into the category between Gen-X and Millenials, a demographic noted for bridging the divide between analogue and digital life. "I didn't get a mobile phone until I was 18 and it used to be that you wouldn't go near the internet button on your phone because it cost a fortune," he laughs. "I think I got a little bit lucky in that I came along before all that. I'm not great on social media but if you don't live your life that way then you probably don't set yourself up for as big a fall when things go wrong or when people come after you."
Growing up, his aspirations were simple: to play rugby for Banbridge and to farm because "that's what my dad did and that's what I wanted to do". But seeing older brother Simon (who had to retire prematurely from the game in 2008 due to a heart problem) forge a professional career in the sport gave Best the encouragement to follow suit. "Watching Simon do it made it feel a lot more attainable," he explains. "That's ultimately what helped me achieve what I did, because he made it all seem possible."
Coming from a rugby-loving family, trips to the old Lansdowne Road stadium and up to Ulster's Ravenhill were regular fixtures in Best's childhood. He worries a little that having him on the pitch has detracted from his family's pleasure of standing on the sidelines, rather than adding to it.
"It used to be carefree," he explains. "Jump in the car, head down the road for a day's fun…Now I've no doubt that my wife, my brothers and sister and especially my mum and dad, are a lot more nervous. It's a very different viewing experience for them. They maybe don't enjoy watching the game as much as they used to when they had nothing at stake except watching a game that they loved."
Personally, Best himself feels greater pressure running onto the pitch these days than he ever did in his earlier career. "If anything, the nerves are slightly more, because you know what the worst case scenario is," he explains. "You know what'll happen if it doesn't go right, whereas when you're young you never have those doubts or fears, you just get on with it and get it done."
He concedes that training has 'become more of a job' for him with each year that goes by, but he still gets a thrill from competing. "For me, as soon as the games started to lose their buzz and lose their edge, that would be the time to start to really think seriously about retiring."
Ah yes, the R word. When we chat, Best has just been named Ulster's man of the match against La Rochelle and is, according to many, playing some of the best rugby of his career. Yet with increasing regularity, the question he is most frequently asked is: "When are you going to retire?" Is it frustrating for him to have the focus continually on the end rather than the present? "It is a little bit," he replies. "It's been four or five years of having to deal with it and my response is always the same: I don't know."
He feels good, he feels like the rugby he's playing now is as good as it was when he was 28 or 29 - so why stop because of a number? Does he feel sport is inherently ageist? "There's no doubt about it," replies Best emphatically. "There seems to be a quantum leap from 29 to 30 in people's opinions of you, and the hardest thing is not to believe it yourself. I know my body better than anyone else and the more people tell me I'm old and can't do something, the more I'll try. I might joke about 'getting on' but in my head I'm thinking, 'Well I don't feel it and I'll show you'."
Best's passion for rugby shines through when he talks about his career and the game as a whole. He's realistic about his limitations on the pitch but also proud of how he's worked to achieve his success. Natural skill will only get players so far, he believes, after that it's down to mental strength and hard work.
"You can't emphasise enough the hard work and dedication that it takes to go to that next level," he states. "Being able to repeat the skill that seems easy in training when there's 80,000 people watching and 15 people trying to stop you doing it - that's what ultimately makes the difference between the top level of players."
There have been career lows - not being selected originally for the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour, being dropped from Ulster's line-up early in his career - but it's how he's dealt with these, that Best feels has shaped him as a player.
"When I hit those roadblocks, my first instinct is always, 'How can I be better, how hard do I have to work to get there and how do I go about doing that?'" he reveals. "Probably a good degree of my durability is down to the hard work that I put in." In the early days when summers rolled around and players were entitled to four or five weeks off, Best would always return to training after two. "Yeah, people are more powerful and faster than me, but are they going to be faster than me in the 70th or 80th minute? My pace generally stays the same the whole way through and grinds them down. That's down to hard work."
Not long ago, I spoke to ex-Ireland pro Luke Fitzgerald who was concerned that parents' fears over the safety of rugby could prevent them from sending their kids out to take up the sport. It's something Best has first-hand experience of. His son Ben plays at Banbridge Rugby Club and just started tackling this year. Best has been cheered by the amount of preparation and attention to safety displayed at the 'minis' level but concedes it's a very different experience watching your child make a challenge compared to flying into a tackle himself. "At the same time, I know the enjoyment that comes from rugby and I know the preparation that goes in to make someone ready to tackle," he says, weighing it up. "You have to trust the system and trust the sport."
Our Monday morning interview was supposed to be taking place face to face in Belfast but instead we're chatting over the phone. I woke on the Sunday with a bad cold but drove North to my parents' house just outside the city with the intention of meeting up for the interview anyway. My father - a die-hard Ulster fan - took one look at my runny nose and red-rimmed eyes and sternly informed me: "There's no bloody way you're going near Rory Best, he has a must-win match this week".
Rory laughs when I tell him the story and thanks me, and my father, for keeping my germs at bay. I'm fairly certain my snuffles have been passed onto me by my three-year-old who recently started Montessori. Apparently dodging kiddy germs is a regular occurrence in the Best household. "They pick up everything don't they?" agrees Best. His wife of nine years, Jodie, plays a key role as the first line of defense between her sportsman husband and their three children. "My wife is really good any time they have anything and sort of takes the hit for the team," says Best. "I'm still there but I don't have as much close contact as I probably should have."
There's often much made of 'mummy guilt', but in a job that often necessitates long periods of time away from the family, or even just having to stay hands-off when coughs, colds and vomiting bugs strike, does 'daddy guilt' ever kick in?
"Definitely," admits Best. "When you miss things - and I've been lucky not to miss too many things - but when you miss something because of rugby, that's when you get the guilt. But at the same time, my wife and kids know that rugby is what gives them a nice lifestyle.
"Jodie has been really good from the moment they were born at bringing them to the home games and even travelling to some of the away games too, so they get nice trips out of it and they get to see first-hand what I go through so I can perform at the top level."
Whilst Ben looks set to follow in his father's footsteps with the rugby bug, daughter Penny is more into drama, dancing and hockey. Not that anyone would stand in her way if she decided to pick up the oval ball. "If she wanted to play rugby it wouldn't bother me in the slightest," says Best. "I think that the women's game is growing and now that they're getting more support, as a parent, I don't feel it would be as isolated letting her play rugby."
He laughs at the idea of describing Jodie as a 'WAG'. "Look, obviously rugby has afforded us some nice perks and a nice lifestyle but we are generally private people," he says. "Ultimately it's the way we've both been brought up and we've known each other so long. She knows who I was before I played for Ulster or Ireland and expects me to be that person, not someone running around on a private yacht. It's a nice grounding."
Far from racing around on private yachts, downtime is spent working on the farm, playing golf, going for walks with the dog and kids or hitting the sofa and the Netflix button. The rugby captain professes a fondness for Narcos, The Punisher and Entourage, although he's also recently been hooked by a home-grown comedy. "I've started watching Derry Girls and it's absolutely hilarious," he reveals. "The only thing is I hate having to wait a week for the next episode!"
I'm aware that the image I'm painting of Best - the nights in front of Netflix, the lack of showbiz stories - might verge on portraying him as dull or bland, which simply isn't the case. He might not have anything to hide, but that doesn't mean he hasn't anything to talk about and what he lacks in controversy he more than makes up for in deep-held convictions and personal integrity.
One of the images of him that will stand out for many Irish rugby fans is that encounter that took place between Best and referee, Jerome Garces, during the Six Nations clash between Ireland and England, telling him, "I have a responsibility to my team" when Sexton was being targeted.
Player welfare is something he feels strongly about, and he's also not shy about letting his thoughts be known on the topic of doping. "It's not fair that somebody gets to take a short-cut to potential success," he fumes. "I don't think it's right in any sport and I think rugby is at a point now where they need to make sure they eradicate it out of it.
"You don't want to get to where other sports are where you've guys coming back from bans. And it doesn't matter how long the ban was, if you're banned once or twice, for them to come back and for them to achieve greatness, it just doesn't seem right. You want to stay as far away from the grey areas as possible. There shouldn't be that many reasons for, 'Oh that was an action because…' and 'That was why I was banned'. I think it undermines the integrity of the sport."
Neither of us mentions any names but Best's comments are particularly pertinent coming as they do in the midst of the controversy surrounding the inclusion of certain players in provincial squads who, in some instances have served time for doping bans, and admitted to taking banned anabolic steroids.
Best sees cycling as a cautionary tale. "Look at cycling - when someone in cycling achieves greatness unfortunately the throwaway comment after a Tour de France is always, 'Oh, well he's probably on something'."
He continues: "I don't pretend to know how a sport like that [cycling] can get it out, but it's important that rugby is tough on it." He's resolute that doping isn't something that he's ever seen first-hand in the course of his career in rugby.
The intensity of his answer on the doping issue is at odds with the more laid back image I have of the sportsman. But then this is also the man who reportedly doesn't sing the anthem at the start of matches because it would heighten his emotions too much. "I try to be laid back but there's no doubt that rugby over the years has made me a little bit more uptight," he reveals. "It would be interesting to see if some of the Ulster squad described me as 'laid back', after the Leinster game [a 38-7 defeat earlier this month] - there were definitely some raised voices in the changing room…"
The game has changed enormously since Best started. It's more physical now, there's more attention to head injuries and more known generally about the importance of looking after the body. But I would contend that it's also seen a shift in image. A generation ago the overwhelming association with 'rugby' was the heavy-set, testosterone-pumped, beer-swilling stereotype of the rugby club. Not so today. My chat with Rory has been scheduled to mark the launch of Glenisk's organic GO-YO range, each pack of which now comes with three collectable IRFU cards. It's Best's second year as brand ambassador for the yogurt company, a happy partnership that's in line with the Ireland captain's interest in the agri-food industry and his desire for nutritious, healthy, family-friendly food. He enthusiastically tells me that his preferred snack is "vanilla yogurt served with one of the nut-butters. Almond maybe".
Not so long ago his team-mate Rob Kearney graced Weekend's pages to talk interior design. Tommy Bowe looks to be starting a TV travel presenting career. I don't want to use Bono's ill-chosen phrase and decry rugby as having 'gotten girly' but yogurt, nut butter, soft furnishings… Would it be fair to say that the sport is more open to embracing its feminine side these days?
Best agrees that the pint-downing alpha-male stereotype of the past isn't a true fit any more. "We need to recover as best we can and going out and drinking a rake of pints after every game puts you on the back foot," he explains. "It has a knock-on effect on your body composition, your strength, your power, your speed and how you recover to play the next game. Rugby is professional now and you've to treat your body accordingly."
He continues: "The guys that are deciding the games now are the likes of Conor Murray, guys who are not necessarily 'alpha males'. Everyone sees an 'alpha male' as a big butch male but ultimately rugby is a game of skill. A lot of the backs that would have sort of been seen traditionally as 'the pretty boys' of the team aren't seen that way now because they're ultimately the ones having big moments in big games. They're the pin-up boys of rugby because they are having a massive influence on the game," he pauses, perhaps sensing himself on shaky ground and anticipating a 'so I'm not an alpha male?' conversation with his scrum-half, "That's not me slagging off Conor Murray," he clarifies, laughing. "I just think rugby's great because there's a place for everyone. That's why I love it."
Rory Best was speaking courtesy of Glenisk GO-YOs and the IRFU's Official Trading Cards. Parents can sign their kids up for a free Collector's Album and Starter Pack at glenisk.com
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