Rugby Union

Neil Best: 'Friendly fire' still has rugby targets to hit

Ulster's Neil Best is tackled by Leicester's Austin Healey before passing the ball to Ulster's Andy Ward (right) who scored the team's second try during their Heineken Cup Pool One match at Ravenhill Park Belfast Sunday January 11 2004. Picture by PA / Paul Faith
John Flack

NEIL Best's sporting career could easily have taken a different trajectory had he fulfilled his promise as a footballer when at school and not switched to the oval-ball game.?

Now based in Singapore where he combines coaching with playing at a less elevated level, the former Ulster and Ireland flanker was nicknamed 'Georgie' during a spell with Northampton Saints in deference to the late Northern Ireland star whose surname he shares.??

Neil grew up kicking a ball in the streets of east Belfast like his more famous namesake, before attending Wellington College which produced ex-Northern Ireland defender Chris Brunt.??

Rugby, which he also played at school, became the name of the game though and the 41-year-old went on to win 122 caps for Ulster and 18 for Ireland and, like George Best, was known as something of a mercurial talent.??

He earned a revealing nickname for the manner in which he sometimes conducted himself in the first six years of his professional rugby career, which began with Ulster in 2002.??

"They used to call me 'friendly fire' because I would be hitting one of our own players or accidentally stepping on them or purposefully doing something," Best recalled.??

"It depended on who it was whether I would hit them hard in training or not and if I didn't like them I would, while if it was someone I liked, I would leave them alone."??

Best formed a formidable and dynamic back row partnership with fellow internationals Stephen Ferris and Roger Wilson while at Ulster and they were spared his occasional 'friendly fire' on the training paddock.?

Ferris, who went on to play for the British and Irish Lions before injury ended his career prematurely, was an up-and-coming young gun at Ravenhill while Best was at the peak of his powers.??

"Stevie was just starting out then but you knew early on how powerful he was. I really liked him and we were usually on the same team in training. You have to pick your battles too though, he was about 18 stone and could run like the wind," Best added.??

"The most famous player I ever came to blows with was probably two-time Scottish Lion Simon Taylor when we played Edinburgh in 2007 although it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.??

"I thought he had done something naughty to me, so I caught him with an uppercut. Shortly afterwards, he added me on LinkedIn and said he still had the scar, so I had to explain to him that I meant to get somebody else."??

Best was by no means only known for brawn as he went on to have a relatively brief but memorable international career. ?

He was involved in Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland team when they were a real force and he was named man-of-the-match after a superb display in the 21-6 win autumn international win over Australia in 2006.??

However, after 10 eventful months, Best was on the losing side in a World Cup pool match against Argentina in France which was to be his last game for Ireland.?

"The Australia game at Lansdowne was the highlight for me and it was the best game I ever played for Ireland.?

"I was more of a bit-part player for Ireland but I was given a run after the summer tour [to Australia and New Zealand].”?

"We were doing well and went into 2007 and the World Cup with belief.?

"The preparations, you could say, were perfect but everything else was a bit of a disaster.”?

Declan Kidney took over the national coaching job from O'Sullivan in 2008 and Best did not feature in the green shirt again apart from a low-key 'A' game with Tonga.?

He switched from Ulster to Northampton Saints for two seasons before moving on to Worcester Warriors and London Scottish and then taking up a job offer in Asia.?

He is now head coach of Singapore Irish, occasionally lining out at fly-half when he is not watching his two sons in action.?

"I wasn't particularly enamoured by the coaching my sons were receiving when they first started playing rugby and I just felt I could do a better job," he explained.?

"So I set up Singapore Irish with a friend of mine and it was going really well until coronavirus struck.

''Fifteen months on, we have 150 kids and seven former internationals on the coaching panel.?

"I haven't been back to Ravenhill since I left Ulster in 2008, but I would love to take the boys over some time soon and regale them with a lot of fake stories about how good their dad used to be.

"Nothing would please me more than if my two sons were to play for Ulster. I couldn't think of anything that would make me happier."

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