The day the Ireland captain lined out in Division Three

New Ireland captain Rory Best took to the field for his home-town club back in 2010. Pics: Presseye
New Ireland captain Rory Best took to the field for his home-town club back in 2010. Pics: Presseye

January 2010 is a month that produced lasting ripples for Banbridge RFC.

It culminated on Saturday 23rd when Ireland star Rory Best made his long-awaited comeback appearance - but in unfamiliar surroundings.

Banbridge club stalwart Joe Hozack raised the club flag as Ireland hooker Rory Best made his comeback for Bann.

Banbridge club stalwart Joe Hozack raised the club flag as Ireland hooker Rory Best made his comeback for Bann.

Having suffered a neck injury and undergone surgery to remove a near prolapsed disc and his vertebrae fused in the summer of 2009, Rory was faced with a full season on the sidelines.

However, a quicker return than expected paved the way for a return to action, in Banbridge colours. He lined up in the All-Ireland League Division Three at Rifle Park against Barnhall.

It was only the second time the hooker had played a competitive game for the club’s senior side to date. The first against Richmond in the All-Ireland League in 2002. That ended in a 58-5 victory, while his appearance eight years later helped Bann to a 17-5 success.

Acording to then skipper Simon McKinstry, though, Best’s appearance had far longer lasting implications than a mere league win.

“It was very surreal,” he recalled, “having an Ulster and Ireland player and a potential British Lion standing beside you in the changing room.

“When he spoke, the boys listened. I actually asked him if he wanted to take the team-talk but he insisted, as I was captain, I should do it.

“I wanted him to say a wee bit and the boys took in every word.

“I was most impressed with him in training though. Playing at the level he does and just coming back from injury, we would have understood if he wanted to take it easy. He even had a game coming up for the Irish Wolfhounds a week later but he got stuck in with everything.

“He still had great craic with the lads too. He was the same guy he always was, it just so happened he was now an Ireland player.

“The boys saw the example that he set and it helped the team to become more professional in everything we did.

“You can see when Ulster bring in a new top-class player that everybody else raises their game. It was the same at Banbridge after Rory came in.”

Best began his career playing mini-rugby at the club before moving on to feature for Tandragee High School and Portadown College.

“Rory would always have been about the club when we were small - although back then the biggest thing to look forward to was getting into the clubhouse for a packet of Fives and a blackcurrent and water,” said McKinstry.

As their careers began to progress, Banbridge Academy student McKinstry had the more arduous task of lining up against his lifelong friend.

“Whenever we played against Rory, we always knew we would be in for a tough match,” said Simon. “He wouldn’t have been as prolific then as he is now but then, as we got older, we started to realise that he was going to be pretty good.

“He started to get call-ups for Ulster and Ireland teams. Anybody who goes to U19 or U21 World Cups are pretty decent but it’s up to them how good they become.

“It’s a testament, then, to Rory that he has reached the levels he has.

“We could never have imagined he would go on to become the player he has and to be Ireland captain.”

But even with the fame that has accompanied his rise to the very pinnacle of the sport, Best has still held on to his roots.

“Not a month goes past without seeing a picture of Rory down at one of the local clubs, helping with the juniors or some form of grassroots rugby. He hasn’t forgotten where he came from at all,” said McKinstry.

Simon retired from the sport in recent seasons but is still involved in the club as coach of Banbridge Seconds.