Rugby Union: Best finds fulfilment in exile

Tim Glover discovers the former England coach has a vision for the Irish
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The Independent Online
WHEN Dick Best was appointed caretaker-coach of London Irish, he told the players: "I'm here for a good time, not a long time." His short-term tenancy expires on 31 May and on 1 June he expects to sign a new contract committing himself fully to the Irish cause.

Sacked by Harlequins and exiled in South Africa, the laconic Englishman feels at home with the Exiles in Sunbury. "It's like going to Dublin every day to work," he said. "If you lose, it hurts, but it's not the end of the world. People still say good morning and offer to buy you a drink."

After a hard night in Rotherham - London Irish won the first leg of the Premiership play-off 16-13 and play the second leg today - Best took his wife to the Chelsea Flower Show on Thursday. It was meant to be an escape from rugby. Instead he bumped into the England coach, Clive Woodward, and they adjourned to the Pimms Bar to discuss the horticultural merits of the rose and the shamrock.

Best, a former England coach, has a vision for the Irish. "First we've got to get out of the basement. We've got to get used to winning games because that becomes habitual. In the second season, we will further strengthen the squad and in the third we are looking to win something. At the moment, we are some way behind the eight ball. The club has been poorly run over the last few years. Mediocrity was tolerated and things didn't happen that quickly."

With a big push in Dublin to attract Irish players back to Ireland, the Exiles have already lost Gabriel Fulcher. With an English coach and an American chief executive, Chuck Nelson, the club has a more cosmopolitan outlook. And a more professional footing. "When I arrived there were still vestiges of amateurism, like training in the evening and part-time players," Best said. "Apart from adding to the squad I want to bring in a first- class back-up team of experts dealing with fitness, treatment and coaching. In football they pay players millions but they don't do anything to make them any better. They don't try to improve them."

In the wake of the success of Saracens and Newcastle, London Irish will also be looking at marketing and administration. "You can't hide behind an amateur committee any longer," Best said. "The old pals act has gone. People have to be accountable. We've got a dynamic board who have invested in the club. These are people who have made a huge success of their lives and they don't want to be associated with failure. I'm a hired hand who has to recommend what it takes. I'm not here to hire and fire."

In common with most clubs, London Irish will report losses this season but with the Rugby Football Union close to resolving the conflict with the clubs, Best is more optimistic than he has been in a long time. "There's been a disservice to the game but now there's a real chance of making a go of it. It's a good time to be in the sport. It's still an elitist game with highly complicated laws. I see stoppages and I don't know what they are for. We will evolve towards the Super 12 style rugby with basketball scores and lots of tries. It won't be false but it will be thoroughly entertaining."

Best is already thinking like a businessman. "There are seven million Irish passport holders in the United Kingdom and we have to get some of these people, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the club to watch our rugby. Slowly but surely, we will claw back some of the losses. I don't see us making money until the fifth year. We will never be an Arsenal or a Manchester United, but we can build a significant income.

"Soccer is in every school. I want a professional youth development officer to promote rugby and I want people of all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds to understand the game and to have a chance of playing it."

The London Irish turnover is pounds 2m compared to pounds 5m a few miles away at Harlequins. A few weeks ago, the Irish demolished Best's former club. "I suspect that among the London clubs the Irish have an inferiority complex," Best said, "but if they think they can win, they're unstoppable. It's a strange Irish mentality."

Above all, Best has to strike a balance. "This is one of the best social clubs in London, if not England, and there has to be room for fun and professionalism. That's why we all got involved in the first place. There is a unique flavour to London Irish which has to be retained."

The emblem on the Irish jerseys is a pint of Guinness. Best's ambition is to raise the glass.

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