Rory Best can reflect on a year bursting with memorable occasions on and off the field

Dr. Rory Best is made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham palace, London
Dr. Rory Best is made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham palace, London

The start of 2019 will mark the countdown to what could potentially be the final stretch for talismanic Ireland and Ulster rugby player, Rory Best.

He is poised to make his swan song in the green jersey of Ireland, as captain, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Ireland celebrate winning against New Zealand for the first time in Dublin

Ireland celebrate winning against New Zealand for the first time in Dublin

That much we know - but what is beyond October next year, is still being discussed.

Best could still continue to play for Ulster until the end of the 2019-20 campaign - or the last time he wears the Ulster jersey competitively could be in April or May.

There is still a lot of rugby to be played between now and that World Cup in Japan and perhaps the only way to surpass what has been a memorable 2018 for Best would be to again lift the Six Nations Championship, a trophy with Ulster and put the cherry on the top by leading Ireland to the World Cup final and lifting the coveted Webb Ellis Trophy.

The 36-year-old has given his all to Ulster and Ireland over the past 14 years.

Rory Best is confered  with the Freedom of the Borough of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon

Rory Best is confered with the Freedom of the Borough of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon

The instantly recognisable figure is as humble a person you can meet, considering all that he has achieved.

Indeed, just recently one leading bookmaker installed him as favourite to win next year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Such is the draw of the man who hails from a celebrated rugby family who played the game at Portadown College and Banbridge - with a period at Belfast Harlequins due to All Ireland League regulations.

He has made 215 appearance for his Province and just over a year ago celebrated his 100th appearance for Ireland.

In the recent win over Scarlets in the European Champions Cup he became Ulster’s most capped player in the competition, with 71 appearances, surpassing Andrew Trimble.

Trimble, who retired last season, is Ulster’s most capped player of all time, with 229 - it may just be a target Best may not surpass given the National player welfare programme.

The Ireland and Ulster skipper has not really had the opportunity to reflect on all that he has achieved over the years, but when he does 2018 will be a year to remember.

Although Ulster were going through a difficult time both on and off the pitch, the players kept their focus and spirits were lifted by those in the Ireland set-up come Six Nations Championship time.

Ireland opened with a last gasp drop goal in Paris over the French to set them on their way to what would be a memorable championship.

The climax in Twickenham, played in snow and near minus conditions, saw Ireland achieve only a third ever Grand Slam, defeating the English in their own back yard.

It was to signal the start of a golden year for the Irish squad.

In the summer they toured Australia - minus their captain who had picked up an injury - and recorded a first ever Test series success Down Under.

It added to the firsts from the previous two years, a first ever win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and a first success in South Africa, both of which Best was involved in.

There was still more to come.

Best was honoured by receiving the freedom of the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough, celebrated by young players across the Province at a special event in Armagh, where there was also a special civic reception at the Archbishop’s Palace in Armagh to confer the honour.

Of that Best said: “To receive the Freedom of the Borough is such a great honour, particularly as it comes from the area where I grew up, where I learned my rugby and where I live.

“This borough has given so much to me over the years and I am thankful to everybody who has helped me throughout my rugby career so far.

“I have had the privilege to take part in some memorable sporting occasions and that will live long in the memory with the best of them.”

It was Dr Rory Best, after he was presented with an honorary doctorate at Queen’s University for distinction in sport.

Back on the pitch, Ulster experienced a changing of the guard, several retirements of key players, a new coaching set-up and a raft of new faces at Kingspan Stadium.

But Best was still there to lead them into a new era in many respects, a period of transition.

Indeed after a shaky start the signs of improvement were starting to emerge and at the end of December Ulster are well placed to make a first quarter-final appearance in Europe since 2014 and also remaining in the mix for the play-offs in the PRO14.

The November Test series was to see Ireland complete a clean sweep of victories in their four games.

The biggest of those came against New Zealand when the top two ranked teams in the World faced off at Aviva Stadium.

Led by Best, Ireland registered their first home success over the All Blacks - and the stage is now set for the World Cup!

Days after that victory, Best was at Buckingham Palace being presented with an OBE by Prince Charles awarded in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

“To be recognised for contributing to a sport, for someone to feel I’m worthy of being nominated, and then to be deemed worthy, it’s quite incredible.

As for the future, Best was giving little away.

“I’ll take it as it comes.

“I am enjoying my rugby, and at the minute I’m focusing on getting past this festive period with Ulster, then we have a couple of big European games, and then before you know it it’s the Six Nations again.

“My focus is very much on getting myself in the best position I can be to get out of this group, to play in a quarter-final, try and retain a Six Nations title and go to a World Cup, and beyond that we’ll see how we’re going.”

“I don’t feel like I’m any different to 12 months ago or 24 months ago.

“Maybe a lot of it’s in the head and a lot of stubbornness has gone a long way in this case!,” he laughs.