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The Battle of Bayonne - The dirtiest game I've ever played - Neil Best

By Neil Best
Ireland v Georgia – RWC 2007

Few men are born brave. Many become so through training and force of discipline

As a rugby player I was never short on courage, but on the odd occasion, I fell a little short on discipline. One of those occasions gave rise to the only time I shed a tear in the dressing room after a match. At that moment in time, it genuinely felt like my world had ended -it was after the Battle of Bayonne.

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In 2007 Ireland were drawn in the same Pool as France for the Rugby World Cup -where the French were the hosts. Being no stranger to daft Irish management decisions at the time, it wasn’t the greatest of surprises when at short notice it was announced that we would play Bayonne, in what was billed “a friendly”, only three weeks before the World Cup kicked off. Yet the players trusted the decision making of the coaches and Ireland management.

Right from the kick off, it was easily the dirtiest game I’ve ever played in. Brian O’Driscoll’s World Cup was nearly over before it begun -when he was punched randomly by one of the second rows breaking his sinus. And that was only the headline of a narrative of French aggression and foul play that was clearly targeted at injuring as many of our players as possible. An inexperienced Wayne Barnes couldn’t control the game in the face of repeated and nasty French conduct, so I felt duty bound to taking matters into my own hands. And I gave a bit back. Eventually, I got carded and it effectively ended my chances of starting at the World Cup.

At the World Cup, I got the final eleven minutes of the opener against Namibia, seven minutes against Georgia, the same against France, and eighteen minutes against Argentina. Our World Cup was over, and I’d played barely a cumulative half of rugby.

I had an unconventional love hate relationship with Eddie O’Sullivan -I had no love for him and he hated me. But his hand had been forced by my form to give me a chance, and in return I gifted him an excuse to bench me for the World Cup. My immediate upset after the Bayonne game was a realisation that my World Cup dream was in many ways lost. I wasn’t angry at Eddie O’Sullivan, I was furious with myself.

Yet over ten years later with the benefit on hindsight and age, I’m still in two minds about what happened. One part of me wishes I’d exercised more control in the face of French aggression and provocation -maximising my chances of playing a greater role for Ireland at the World Cup. The other part of me has a slightly different take on things. I was quite measured in what I gave back during that game -and given the consequences for me of what I did do -a little bit of me wonders whether my true regret is not giving back a whole lot more.

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living

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