'I think about it when I'm a bit down' - former cult figure Neil Best recalls fond Ulster memories from Singapore

Neil Best
Best was a fans' favourite during his time with Ulster

"I could probably give the team about seven minutes if Dan McFarland's interested."

Like a lot of sportsmen and women past and present, former Ireland and Ulster flanker Neil Best has plenty of thinking time right now.

Currently self-isolating in his apartment in Singapore, where he now lives and works, the Belfast native became something of a cult figure among the Ravenhill faithful thanks to his all-action style during his six years with the province.

It's a period of his life, starting in 2002 and ending in 2008, that he remembers with huge fondness and one his mind has been wandering to more and more during isolation.

Although currently on hold, Best, now 41, is still playing club rugby in his adopted home after retiring from a professional career that also included spells at Northampton Saints, Worcester Warriors and London Scottish.

Hence the tongue-in-cheek offer of his services to current Ulster boss McFarland.

"I really miss Ulster - it was such great craic - and I still think about some of my times there when I'm feeling a bit down," said Best, who won 18 caps for Ireland after making his international debut in November 2005.

"It's not even winning things that I think about, but more just being with the lads. Those Friday nights in Belfast. Some of those European Cup pool games were so memorable.

"It would be cold, wet and terrible. The other team probably didn't really want to play rugby, but I loved playing in conditions like that.

"I definitely miss it a lot. I'm 41 now, a little bit heavier but I'm still pretty fit so you never know - a short-term contract, maybe?"

Loving being Solomons' 'dog'

Alan Solomons
Alan Solomons has been at Northampton Saints, Southern Kings and Worcestor Warriors since leaving Ulster

While talk of a playing return to Ulster is of course very much in jest, Best is very serious when he talks about getting back to watch his beloved club as a fan.

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

A lot of those tales would no doubt be inspired by his admiration and respect for Alan Solomons, the South African who was head coach at Ulster from 2001-4 and who gave Best his debut.

"I have a lot to thank 'Solly' for," Best enthused. "He really drove me on. I remember a European game against Stade Francais at home and we were having our team-talk before going out.

"He said 'Humph [Ulster out-half David Humphreys], you kick the ball so high it comes down with ice on it and then we will set the dog on them' as he pointed to me. I would have done anything for that man, run through a brick wall.

"I still think about the faith that he showed in me as a young player and throughout most of my career with Ulster. He was a superb coach and a superb human being as well."

A new position in extended playing career

He may not be McFarland's recruitment radar, but what about that extended playing career of Best's in Singapore?

Given that he never did things by halves, Ulster fans are unlikely to be surprised to hear that the former flanker is playing in the local Premiership as well as a veterans' league. They will, however, no doubt raise an eyebrow at the position he is occupying.

"I play out-half against the older lads - not because I'm the best in that position but because I'm the least worst," he explained.

"When I'm playing the older lads I maybe go a bit easier but against guys that are 15 years younger than me, I'm in the second row and don't mind going in that bit harder."

Neil Best
Best made his Ireland debut in 2005

To further add to his impact on the local rugby scene in Singapore, Best has also set up a new team - Singapore Irish - that his two sons are playing for.

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

"So I set up Singapore Irish with a friend of mine and it's going really well. Fifteen months on, we have 150 kids and seven former internationals on the coaching panel, half of whom are ladies.

"We have over 30 nationalities involved - you don't have to be Irish or Singaporean. Obviously everything is on pause right now due to coronavirus - and rightly so - but I'm looking forward to getting back into it."

The Singapore authorities 'have been great'

That pause is, of course, applying to all aspects of Best's life as he goes through a self-isolation after being given a formal quarantine order from the Singapore police force after he had been in contact with someone who had tested posted for coronavirus.

He described the sanctions for anyone not following the orders as stringent, but was full of praise for the steps the local authorities is taking to trace and control the outbreak.

"Most of my pals are working from home and there is a real heightened sense of security as the authorities are quite strict with enforcement," he explained.

"The response by the government here has been great, they are on top of everything. You can sign up for a WhatsApp system that provides updates every six hours - I think the job they are doing is outstanding."

The conversation, invariably, ends on Ulster, with Best hoping his family's links with the club could be rekindled in the future.

"You know what, nothing would please me more than if my two boys were to play for Ulster. I can't think of anything that would make me happier."

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