Rory Best and Ulster show they are not a spent force

Veteran hooker backs up his influential role off the bench in win over Cardiff

Ulster’s Rory Best gets over the line but is held up during Friday night’s Heineken Champions Cup tie against Scarlets at  Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: Inpho

Ulster’s Rory Best gets over the line but is held up during Friday night’s Heineken Champions Cup tie against Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: Inpho

 

Rumours of Rory Best’s demise, and of Ulster being a spent European contender, have proved false. There’s plenty of life left yet in the old dog, and in Ulster’s season too.

Best has underlined his continuing value to country and province in the last month. After leading Ireland to their first home victory over the All Blacks, he has backed up his influential role off the bench in Ulster’s win over Cardiff in the Pro14 and now in the back-to-back wins over the Scarlets.

The change of tack under his captaincy was evident when Ulster turned to their maul and more direct running during the first half, and the 10-points haul over last season’s beaten semi-finalists has left Ulster well placed to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time in five seasons.

With Racing also completing a 10-point haul over Leicester on Sunday, the Parisians come to the Kingspan Stadium on January 12th for what will hopefully closer to a full house than last Friday night. On 14 points, and with Leicester away on the final Saturday, Ulster are well placed and as one of the few survivors from those days, Best appreciates what a return to the last eight would represent.

“I think it is a competition that is very special to anyone that plays top level rugby in Europe. It would be very special for this group to go through with what we have been through the last 12-18 months to take a step up. That is where we want to get.”

“I think you can see now, this season, we are enjoying our rugby, we are trying to play with the pace, with width. I think that every person out there, especially in the last two weeks, looked like they wanted to have the ball in their hand and when they do not, they want to go and defend for each other.

“The coaches have been drilling it for a while now. Sometimes it just takes time to click. We are far from the finished article, but I think there is a real want to be better and Ulster teams in the past would have went to the Scarlets and probably got beaten for a start, but to go there and produce a good performance and get four or five points we would have then racked up the next week and a little bit taken for granted.”

“It is going to be steps forward and a step back somewhere along the line because they are young but the more we can add forward and the more experience we get of what it takes to play at this level and to perform at this level the better it will be.”

As for his form, the 36-year-old hooker said: “I am reasonably happy with how I have been playing all year, I am enjoying it. It is nice getting out there and nice being a part of a pack that want to physical and want to take teams on; something I have always tried to do. Sometimes it does not always happen, but you try to enjoy your rugby and get stuck in and be as good as you can be yourself, but also try to affect people around you and make them better if you can.”

The dramatic emergence of the 23-year-old Templeogue and Academy prop, Eric O’Sullivan (who less than a year ago was trying to break into the Banbridge first team but underlined his fitness with two big shifts in the last two Fridays) has given Best “a new lease of life.” Coupled with Marty Moore’s increasing match fitness, the Ulster side is unrecognisable from the October games.

“I noticed a big difference after being away in the autumn,” revealed Best. “Before I went away in the autumn I just couldn’t get comfortable in the scrum with whatever was going on, and the boys have worked unbelievably hard.

“When you go back into Ireland, you sit alongside Tadhg (Furlong) and Cian (Healy) and you think ‘alright, this is what it feels like to be really comfortable in the scrum’. During that little fallow period and into those couple of games, Aaron Dundon and Dan (McFarland) have worked really hard, Marty Moore has stepped up and taken a big lead and gotten himself match fit and got himself in a good space.

“From the first scrum when I came back from the internationals, you sort of fitted in and felt like ‘this feels more like a scrum that can actually try to attack now’. Those boys have worked really hard, and you have to take your hat off to the boys.”

“Sometimes you wondered over the last couple of years when the internationals were away if the boys would just put their feet up, but that’s not the case now and I think it sums up where we’re at and where we want to go.”

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