From AlumNews , April 2007
Jaine Fleetwood met with Simon Best (BSc Agriculture 1999), Captain of the Ulster Rugby team and a Prop for the Ireland Team who had just returned from the final Six Nations game on St Patrick’s Day against Italy which Ireland won 24-51.
JF- Simon, I must congratulate you on your win against Italy on Saturday- there must have been a great celebration having done so well on Paddy’s Day?
SB- Thanks, yes it was a great experience to win the game although unfortunately an overall victory in the Six Nations was just snatched from us by France. It was fun to be in Rome on St Patrick’s Day, the whole city seemed to be decked out in green, a bit like a mini-Dublin. Apparently there were 17,000 Irish supporters there so the atmosphere was electric.
JF- What made you decide to study at Newcastle University? Was your interest in Rugby anything to do with it?
SB- Not really, no. There is something of a tradition in my family of studying at Newcastle, in particular as my father and uncle both studied Agriculture there before me. My family own a farm near Newry, 35 miles south of Belfast, and I was very keen to follow an Agriculture degree. The course at Newcastle had a good reputation, so it seemed an obvious choice. My parents both met at Newcastle University, and my brothers studied there too so I have been brought up on nothing but great memories of the City! I also knew that as an Agric at Newcastle, the social life was going to be pretty interesting, but in actual fact once I arrived and took up Rugby I didn’t have much opportunity to take part in that side of things!
JF- So tell me how your rugby career developed once you arrived at Newcastle University.
SB- I had represented Ireland at Schools, Under 19s, Under 21s and A Levels so I was passionate about the sport, but at the time I began my degree, Rugby had just become a professional sport. It seemed like a pretty uncertain career to aspire to at that time so it wasn’t really an option for me initially. Of course, Newcastle Falcons were at the forefront of the professional game - Rob Andrew had just moved up to coach the Falcons. I had intended to go and have a look at the Falcons and see if there were any opportunities for me there, and when I arrived in Newcastle University, one of the first people I met was Hugh Vyvyan (Captain of Saracens), who is now one of my good friends. Hugh and I both agreed to go over to Kingston Park and make ourselves known, and the outcome of that was that I was picked to join the Falcons second team. I really don’t think I would have been brave enough to do that on my own so I have Hugh to thank to some extent for what has happened since then. The Falcons Coach, Rob Andrew, fully respected the need for me to take part in the student life and he encouraged me to play for the University when possible. He appreciated the need for a strong University side and I believe the club still has strong links with both Newcastle and Northumbria Universities as a developing ground for student players.
I played for the University team on Wednesday and the Falcons second team on Saturday then by second and third year I was playing in a few games for the Falcons first team and training with the first squad. It was a great grounding for a professional rugby player and I couldn’t have done it without the support from both the academics at Newcastle, who respected my need to train and travel to games, and from the guys at Falcons who encouraged me to continue working hard at University.
On graduation, I was offered a place on the first team by both the Falcons and Ulster, which is one of the four provincial teams in Ireland. I opted for the Ulster team and I have been there ever since, captaining the side for the past two seasons.
JF- As an Agric and a rugby player, did you experience the traditional rivalry between Agrics and Medics when it comes to rugby?
SB- The Agrics are very competitive when it comes to any sport and I know when my Dad was at Newcastle your allegiance was to the Agrics team first, then the University team. However as I was involved with the Falcons at such an early stage of my studies, it was difficult for me to play for the Agrics team so I didn’t get too drawn in to the rivalries!
JF- Your younger brother Rory also plays for Ulster and Ireland- is it strange playing on the same team?
SB- Not really. Rory is 4 years younger than me and has been really successful in his career to date- he started all the Ireland games in the Six Nations tournament this year which is a great achievement. It’s great to have him on the team and I feel like he has made the position his own. I have always encouraged him to follow this career- I knew he had potential for a long time and I am delighted to see him achieve so much particularly with the Ireland squad this season.
JF- Your parents must be proud of you, but are they worried that there is nobody to look after the family farm?
SB- You’d think so wouldn’t you! Luckily my parents are big fans of rugby, and in fact I think they have only missed one game this year. They try to follow us around for our international games and it’s become a major part of their life. It’s ironic that when I was growing up Dad couldn’t get away for long holidays because of the demands of running the farm but now he’s jetting off around the world to watch his sons play rugby. My mother says it’s amazing how easily he has adapted to this lifestyle!
JF- It seems that quite a lot of Newcastle graduates have gone on to play for professional teams- is that surprising to you?
SB- A lot of my peers went on to become successful in the sport, yes. As I mentioned earlier my good friend Hugh Vyvyan is captain of Saracens and another close friend of mine is Jimmy Cartmell (Newcastle Falcons) who studied at Newcastle University too, although Jimmy has had to retire recently due to a shoulder injury. Phil Godman (Scotland) was at Newcastle around the same time as my brother Rory and I believe there are a few others too (David Callam- Scotland, Tom May- Newcastle Falcons). I think the University team was always a strong one so it’s not that surprising to see so many of us doing well.
JF- Tell me about a typical week for you?
SB- Well, Ulster normally play on Friday night, so we would usually train at a pitch session Monday and Tuesday mornings then do a weight session Monday and Tuesday afternoons. Wednesday is a ‘down’ day to relax a bit, Thursday we would do a fairly light run through and then we play Friday night. Saturday is a recovery day and Sunday is a day off. We get advised on diet – most players have to eat a lot these days to keep on the weight – particularly the forwards. It used to be that players got too big, but now weight and size is such a big part of the game that it’s important to work hard at the gym.
JF- Most people play rugby in their spare time as a hobby, but you do it as a day job- so what do you do in your spare time?
SB- Golf is traditionally the professional rugby players’ sport but I haven’t the patience for it! I spend lots of time on the farm and have recently started up a new business venture there – a paintball and leisure company called Actonadventures.com. I’m looking after the financial side of that and my business partner deals with the day to day running of things. Farm diversification is a major trend these days, and as leisure is such a booming industry and we apparently have more disposable income than ever before, it seemed like a good option.
JF- Speaking of spare time- you had a serious injury last year which left you out for a while. Tell me about that?
SB- Yes I fractured my leg and dislocated my ankle at the end of last season in the penultimate game (May 2006). It came down to the last game to decide who won the league and I had to miss the game due to the injury- I watched it from hospital and was pretty devastated not to get to hold up the trophy with the other guys. I’m not a very good spectator! It also meant I missed the tour of New Zealand with the Ireland team which was a real shame but the bright side of it is that I only missed 2 months of the season due to the timing and I am glad it didn’t happen this year as we are preparing for the World Cup, which is the real prize in this sport!
JF- So if you were a betting man would you be putting money on Ireland to win the World Cup this time?
SB- Well we are certainly one of the strongest teams in the Northern Hemisphere and I would say we are in the top three or four teams in the tournament, so we have a great chance. We slipped up against France in the Six Nations tournament- it would have been our first Six Nations success in 25 years- so I suppose we have even more reason to want to win the World Cup.
JF- How is the preparation going for the World Cup then?
SB- Well the timing means everything has shifted back from the normal Rugby calendar- the warm up and selection is in August, so my preparation will be in June after the end of season tour in May – so there’s not much time off this summer. However I will have to take some time off for an equally important event – I’m getting married in June!
JF- Congratulations! How does your girlfriend feel about the possibility that you will be walking up the aisle with black eyes or broken bones though?
SB- I’m very lucky, my fiancée is a hockey player so she understands the occupational hazards- in fact she gets worse injuries than me in the game so she is quite understanding!
JF- Finally Simon, do you have any advice for students who would like to turn professional in the game?
SB- The best advice I can give is to finish your degree. There is a big temptation to become professional at a young age but rugby can be a short career – 10 years maximum because of the knocks and injuries you sustain, and in the worst case scenario your career can be over due to one bad injury. The best thing I did was finish my degree, and I was lucky to be encouraged by the team to stick with my studies so I would say this is best advice I can give anyone.
published on: 24th April 2007
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