THE feeling of being a Grand Slam winner is still sinking in for Rory Best.
It’s been a fortnight since Ireland claimed the historic title - Ireland’s first in 61 years - but for the Poyntzpass man there has been no let up from his rugby committments to let him think about what his team have achieved.
Ireland won the Six Nations, Triple Crown and only their second Grand Slam two weeks ago in Cardiff when the Irish beat Wales 17-15 in an epic encounter at the Millenium Stadium and Best still feels stunned by it all.
“After 61 years it just feels unbelievable to have been part of a very special team,” said the hooker.
“I’ve been part of the set up now for four years and we’ve always sort of felt close to doing it, but we always ended up feeling disappointed on the other side of the tournament. We’ve gone close before but not close enough like the year we won the Triple Crown but just missed out in 2006 and 2007 on the Grand Slam.
”Going into the tournament this time there was a confidence that we could do it. The camp felt like a good place to be and there was a hunger and desire to achieve something after the disappoinment of 2007.
“Things were going well for me too as I was starting to feel as though Ulster had started to turn a corner and things were finally starting to get back on track.”
Behind the scenes in the build up to the Six Nations there had been changes to the Irish camp. Munster coach Declan Kidney had been appointed coach following the departure of Eddie O’Sullivan.
“Declan is a very composed man and he makes all the players feel relaxed and at ease before the game,” said Rory. “He is constantly reminding us of how we are a great bunch of players and how lucky and privledged he is to be coaching such a quality side.
“When he speaks it’s all motivational, he gives the boys such a lift.”
Ireland started off the campaign at home to France, but unfortunately for Rory he started as a replacement. This was a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the competition as he battled with Jerry Flannery for the number two shirt.
He said, “It is frustrating to be sitting on the bench. I’m a professional and I want to start every game I possibly can. But it makes you hungrier to get into the game and it’s good to get a chance.
“There’s a good friendly rivarly between myself and Jerry and that’s the way it is right across the squad - it speaks volumes about the quality of guys like Stephen Ferris who can retain their place on a regular basis.”
Rory finally got to start in the penultimate game of the competition away to Scotland with the Irish winning 22-15 at Murrayfield.
“It was great to get a start,” said Rory. “However before the game I started to get a sense of realism and the pressure that was on us to win the game as we were getting closer to achieving an unbelievable feat.
“Of course we did win the game but that was to be expected as we had been going so well going into the Scotland game.”
Ireland were now 80 minutes away from winning the Grand Slam. Their final game was against Wales in the Millenium Stadium with the eyes of the world watching to see who would be victorious.
All Ireland had to do was win. Wales, however, were also in with a chance of winning the Championship and needed to win by 13 points but within the Irish camp any chance of winning the Grand Slam was being played down.
“We realised how close we were to winning it, that was unavoidable, but between us in the camp we never liked to talk about the Grand Slam.
“We went into the game treating the Welsh with respect. It felt like a cup final, which essentially is what it was given that the two teams were in a position to win.
“Walking into the stadium there was something like 76,000 people there but it looked as though the support was split 50-50; certainly that’s what it sounded like to us when the Irish cheered. It was an amazing atmosphere which was very special.”
The game itself “passed in a flash” according to Rory. They had a lot of the play but at half time Ireland found themselves trailing 6-0 thanks to two penalties from Stephen Jones.
In a tense second half Ireland took the lead with tries from Brian O’Driscoll and Best’s Ulster team mate Tommy Bowe with conversions from Ronan O’Gara.
Then the Welsh fought back with a penalty and a drop goal from Jones to go back in front by a point. At this stage Wales were leading by a point - not enough to win the Six Nations championship but enough to end the Irish dream of their first Grand Slam in 61 years.
Three minutes from the end Ireland won a line out right at the line. Best was to take it.
“To be honest I was that focused on the job at hand that I didn’t realise the significance of the line out. We were a point down - we wouldn’t have got that chance again to take it.
“When Ronan kicked over we had to remain focused and keep our discipline. We won the kick off but then we gave away a penalty right at the end.
“Jones is a great kicker, make no mistake, and we were just hoping he would miss. Luckily he did and the scenes which followed were just amazing.”
In the pockets of Irish fans throughout the stadium and back home there were scenes of joy and tears of happiness during the celebrations.
“We went on the lap of honour and it was unbelievable. To see what it meant to guys like Paul O’Connell who had won two European Cups just brought it home to me about how big an achievement this was.
“When we arrived at Dublin Airport there were all the fire trucks and ambulances out waiting to see us - it was completely surreal.
“Then when we got inside the airport there were so many people there to meet and greet us. Then we got to Dawson Street where there were thousands of people there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In the aftermath of the celebrations Best, along with fellow Ulstermen Tom Court and Paddy Wallace, met Jimmy Nelson who won the competition back in 1948.
Said Rory, “It was surreal to meet someone who had won the competition from back then and share stories. He actually wanted to come up and meet us which meant so much to all the boys.”
The incredible scenes brought to an end an incredible Six Nations campaign. Attentions now turn to the forthcoming British and Irish Lions tour although Best is playing down his chances of making the squad.
“It would be an unbelievable dream of mine to make the squad but realistically you need to be starting for your country as it makes it easier for you to get selected. I would say at the minute I would be an outside bet for making the squad.
“It’s been a great season and I’m looking forward to the end of it to get a rest and reflect on what has been achieved.”