The last few years have been among the sunniest in the Ireland rugby team’s history. Yet as the brain’s sporting memory function struggles to perceive much beyond recent results, a disappointing 2019 World Cup tends to ruin attempts to look back with satisfaction over the achievements of the last five years.
Push through the gloom though, and the glories come thick and fast. Ireland’s first-ever victory over the All Blacks in 111 years, at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2016. Winning in South Africa for the first time ever that same year. Winning the Grand Slam at Twickenham in 2018 to set a new Irish record of 12 wins on the trot, then beating the All Blacks again later that year to record a first-ever victory against them in Ireland.
The sensation may have been an unfamiliar one, but this was a team that deserved its ranking as World Number One. And leading them onto the field for that string of extraordinary landmarks was a slightly improbable “shy, fat farm boy” from Poyntzpass, Armagh, the very modest hooker Rory Best.
By the time he retired at 37, after Ireland’s last game in the World Cup last year, given short shrift by New Zealand in the quarter-finals, he had amassed 124 caps, 38 as captain, the kind of numbers that hint at being a bit of a Big I Am. My Autobiography, however, tells a different story.
This is a man with self-doubt to spare and who constantly needs reminding, by self and others, that he’s there on merit. There’s no questioning his love of the sport or commitment – in 2013 he famously broke his arm tackling an All Black and piled back in, arm flapping, for more defensive heroics before the team doctor had to gently tell him his game was over.
But whereas elite performers tend to display a single-minded focus on seeing how far their talent can take them, Best is a one-club man, staying put at trophy-deprived Ulster because he couldn’t bear the thought of not being there were they to win anything. And even being made captain of the national side comes with a large dose of panicked reflection.
Initially elated, “It wasn’t long before that feeling gave way to one of dread,” he says, and the daunting prospect of telling a dressing room of stars what he expects of them keeps him awake all night. His response early on to criticism of his line out throwing (a sore point throughout his career) was to turn an enormous piece of old heavy agricultural machinery into a “throwing machine”. No sports psychology or specialist coaching there.
Indeed, there’s something of the throwback about his entire career, both off the field, where he identifies just two interests (family and beer, the latter being very much of the “up till 6am, found some old boots to drink out of” variety) and on it.
As recently as 2007, he says, “It is frightening how unprepared we were as a pack of forwards. We didn’t even have a scrum coach. All we did was try to push harder than the opposition.”
He is generous with his praise for the great leaders he worked under, most of all Joe Schmidt, the architect of much of Ireland’s recent success, and is classy enough to keep it dialled down on the pages regarding Irish rugby politics.
The most abiding image though, is the one of him being given a guard of honour by the All Blacks following that World Cup exit – an honour few in rugby can have experienced – and Best not knowing where to look. So to anyone from a farming background who has weight and confidence issues and is wondering when life is going to start, remember: all is not lost.
My Autobiography, by Rory Best. Hodder & Stoughton, £20