Best can't wait to get in on the act as high-flying Ulster tackle the Saints
He’s 30 now, with 131 Ulster caps and 62 Ireland caps, and hence he should know better. With age should come wisdom and experience, but, Rory Best reasons, with the passing years comes more nerves as well. So it was he looked on as his carefree young Ulster team-mates cut a swathe through the November window. It reminded him of his youth.
In particular, he enjoyed watching Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy enjoy themselves against Fiji.
On the Monday after Gilroy’s sensational full debut against Argentina, Best and co sought to keep the winger grounded with some slagging.
“But at the same time you make your debut for Ireland, you score a try and they score over 40 points, you have to let him enjoy that, because you dream of that sort of thing. There’s no hang-ups from playing Argentina from his point of view and it showed.”
The fearlessness of youth.
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “You get to your late 20s and it starts to sink in that maybe this won’t last; you start to get nervous that this might be the last time.”
His frustration at missing out on the November series wouldn’t have been helped by the way Richardt Strauss took to Test rugby, and the way Ireland played against Argentina ensured Best was more determined to return.
“It was disappointing not getting the result against South Africa having been 12-3 up at half-time.
Energy and enthusiasm
“Against Argentina, they didn’t do everything perfectly but everything they tried to do they did with energy and enthusiasm, and they just looked like a team who wanted to go out and play a wee bit, and try to have as much fun as you can have at international level. Everybody wants to be involved in that.”
Best admits he has rarely been more nervous than when making his comeback at Parc Y Scarlets last Sunday after damaging ligaments in his neck during Ulster’s win over the Dragons five weeks before.
“It was sort of slightly complicated because it was in and around where the previous surgery had been, so I wanted to make sure it was right and look after it properly.
“To be honest, it’s as nervous as I’ve been playing for Ulster for maybe, och, five or six years at least. I was more nervous than the final.
“I knew I was good to go, the surgeon was happy, all the test results had been very, very positive but until you actually hit that first scrum, with a neck or back history and you haven’t 100 per cent tested it, you’re always a bit nervous.”
As fate would have it, no sooner had Best joined the fray in the 57th minute than Ulster’s scrum was packing down. A big shove won them a penalty. “That settled me. It’s probably not a bad thing to go straight into a scrum. There’s no chance to play a bit of rugby and think about it. It’s just ‘Right, you’re on. Let’s go’.”
He feels ready to start tonight, even if being pitched into a Heineken Cup tie away to a fired-up Dylan Hartley and co doesn’t exactly allow for baby steps.
“This is going to be a forward’s dream. It’s going to be tight and physical, no quarter asked or given. You know that if we win this game it’s going to be down to one to eight. The backs will do whatever they have to do. But to beat Northampton – you saw it with Leinster in the final two years ago – you have to get on top of them physically.”
Northampton will be fighting for their lives and Ulster have that bull’s eye on their foreheads which comes with their unbeaten record.
“From their point of view, they realistically are win-or-bust. If we can win, we would be very confident going home then. But that’s the beauty of these back-to-back games. At the minute all the pressure is on them, but if they happen to beat us then all of a sudden our backs are against the wall in the space of seven days. It’s a complete turnaround.”
“But whatever game you play you look around and you can’t but take massive confidence from the squad of players we have. There are match-winners right across the board, with genuine impact on the bench. I’ve definitely never played in a stronger Ulster team or squad.”