Sport Rugby

Monday 26 August 2019

David Kelly: 'Ireland's unlikely leader will bow out on his own terms'

Rory Best celebrates Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam success in Twickenham
last year with his children Ben and Penny. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rory Best celebrates Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam success in Twickenham last year with his children Ben and Penny. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Every sporting professional desires to delay the inevitable day when they must call time, but theirs is so often a forlorn plea.

At the very least, all they can hope for is to state the truth of finality for themselves, before their body betrays them or someone else's mind decides to do it for them.

In determining himself to let go, Rory Best possesses the comforting knowledge that, regardless of what others might think, his final days, and the days that follow the first death for any athlete, will be endured the way he wants them to.

It is still a painful release, but at least one of which he has the grasp. "A luxury," he affirms, "with which I feel privileged."

He is ready to embrace his sporting mortality, as all must do. Everything he has now immersed in one final push.

Japan now awaits, perhaps a Yokohama swansong in November that even he, for all his achievements in green, can perhaps only dare to greedily anticipate.

Then again, given all he has accumulated after such unpromising beginnings, why not indulge in such an audacious ambition?

Depart

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

He shall depart with a heaving sack of collective accolades; Ulster's most-capped international with 116 appearances; four Six Nations titles, including two Grand Slam successes (one as captain); leader when Ireland first downed the All Blacks before returning to second in the world.

And yet, for all that his career has been so wildly lauded - we almost forget the addition of two Lions tours and an OBE - there remains a nagging sense that his status as captain of the most successful Irish team of all time has not always been wholly reciprocated by an entire nation.

That the admiration and respect of his peers within dressing-rooms has not always been so universally shared elsewhere.

And yet Best's remarkable journey encapsulated just how the nature of sport can at once draw out the most from a person and the environment they inhabit.

His home place, Poyntzpass, nestles between the borders of Armagh and Down. Best was a teenager when a Catholic and a Protestant were shot dead in a bar; it later transpired one had asked the other to be the best man at his wedding.

Eleven years earlier, on the eve of the inaugural World Cup, an IRA bomb ended the career of Ulster and Ireland player Nigel Carr in a village that lay just 11 miles from the Best family farm.

Just as it might seem trite to ascribe Best's emergence into one who would form lasting friendships with all creeds and none as being framed by geography, it would be just as foolish if one totally ignored their impact on him and those who would share a remarkable career.

Best's ability to embody multiple identities, and unite them too, often eludes many who slavishly claim to own only one.

We only have to witness the ceaseless yearning to wonder just why, if it were understandable why he could never sing the 'Soldier's Song', then why also did he never mouth the rainbow anthem of 'Ireland's Call'?

That it was merely due to his enormous pre-match anxiety escaped many who, for whatever reason, struggled to accord him the inviolable warmth afforded predecessors like Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll.

The latter pair, of course, also captained the Lions which naturally embellished their status, at home and abroad; greatness, it seemed, was always pre-destined for two players marked down as emerging stars in their earliest years.

Talented

Best, not as talented as that duo, would have to work much harder to secure a path that never seemed to be gilded with natural greatness.

A humiliating snub as a sub on the 2006 tour to New Zealand hardened him. And so he had not only to change his game, but his unprofessional physique, too.

At the next year's World Cup, his older brother, Simon - one Rory might also admit was a superior professional, then - was walking in Bordeaux when the sudden onset of a heart condition terminated his career in an instant.

From that moment on, despite a struggle with a serious neck injury, Best vowed that he would never leave anything to chance.

Bowing out on his terms, three World Cups later, owes much to the man Joe Schmidt calls a "no-nonsense, quiet achiever".

There is work to be done on the farm but several months of toil await him on sporting fields first, when he will seek to embellish his status as, arguably, Irish rugby's most influential leader of men.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport