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'You don’t play to run up and down hills': Rory Best chasing long overdue taste of victory in Ulster jersey
The Ireland captain has won many more Tests than provincial ties in the past year.

IT’S NOT A nice stat for Rory Best to admit, that he hasn’t won in an Ulster jersey since December 2016.

Between poor team performances, injuries, international call-ups and enforced rests, somehow the influential Banbridge man hasn’t played in any of Ulster’s 18 wins since then, the last time he tasted victory a 23-7 win over Connacht three days before last Christmas.

Bad luck probably has a part to play, especially with his injury record, while he also voluntarily sat out last season’s win over Leinster to conclude a dismal campaign to avoid missing the Lions tour to New Zealand.

But a lot of it also has to do with how Ulster’s form has fallen off a cliff from where the team were a few years ago. While it’s not catastrophic – they are still third in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 after all – it’s not complimentary. Take last week’s harrowing 38-7 pummelling at the hands of Leinster as an example. Neither side were at full strength, but you could easily make the case that Les Kiss showed a far stronger hand than Leo Cullen did.

When it came down to it, however, Ulster’s wildcards all proved to be aces. Defensively the visitors were exploited time and time again by the likes of Jordan Larmour and Barry Daly, while superstars Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale were both shown up when called upon to make last ditch tackles.

Six more tries were shipped in what is turning quickly into a defensive horror show of a season, and the loss served as a stark reflection on how far the northern province languish behind their Dublin cousins.

Les Kiss mentioned afterwards that he didn’t feel there was much between the sides. Chances are he was the only one thinking that.

“Saturday is hard to put into words as to how frustrating it was and how it was heart-breaking to lose,” captain Best says, deciding to take a bit of a different angle on the defeat.

“We’ve lost at the RDS before, and it is a really tough place to go, but I think the manner of the defeat was really hard to take. We can’t just forget about it. It did happen and we need to learn something from it.

The most frustrating thing for us is that it felt that maybe four of the six tries they scored we started the passage of play with the ball, which suggests we’re turning it over too easily, and then when we turn it over we’re not doing enough to try and kill the ball before they get it.

“It’s these pivotal moments that we’re not winning, and if anything we’re giving it up, and when the pressure comes back on to us we’re giving up those pivotal moments and teams are scoring.”

There’s pressure on the squad from the fanbase. Third place isn’t good enough for a squad that demands success in the form of trophies, and the fact that they haven’t tasted even a knockout game for over a year is testament to where they’ve fallen to.

A win would probably suffice for Best, that horrendous run without a win in white rearing its head again, and despite featuring in plenty of positive results for his country, the 34-year old admits he’s badly missed that sensation of being victorious at the final whistle for his club.

Rory Best celebrates Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“You forget what that feeling is like when you walk into that changing room and everyone is absolutely shattered because they’ve given everything they have to produce one of those special performances,” the Ireland captain sighs.

For a good few minutes after the final whistle nobody is really fit to speak, and I can recall a lot of them over my career where people are just so shattered and given everything yet they have shared that together.

“That’s where we need to get back to, it’s a feeling we need to get. Ultimately that’s why you play, you don’t play to run up and down hills, you play it for that moment when it’s over and you’ve nothing left to give but you look around and see another 22 players who’ve done the same.”

So where is it going wrong for Ulster?

Ask anybody outside of the province and they would say the squad is good enough on paper. They have a strong coaching set-up, headlined by Ireland defensive guru Les Kiss and former Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes. They have a world-class stadium and training facilities.

And yet there they are, 13 points adrift in their conference and facing a heavy backlash from the Ravenhill faithful after two losses from three in their inter-pro series, and another half a match against Munster that was a one-sided affair against them – before a red card for Sam Arnold helped them turn the tide.

Performances have been sub-par – Saturday’s defeat at the RDS Arena sadly seems the rule rather than the exception – and the squad depth has been openly questioned as well. For Best, it hurts more than for most.

“I think the frustrating thing is that you want to come in as one of the Ireland internationals and as the captain and you want to feel that you make a difference, you want to feel that you lift the place,” he laments.

“That was very frustrating for me to come in and for us to produce probably at times some of our worst rugby. It is very, very annoying because you feel that you need to add things.

Rory Best, Pablo Matera and Bundee Aki Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“We need our internationals to step up and have big moments and big plays and that didn’t happen. It’s incredibly frustrating from my own point of view that you just want to help and move the thing forward.

“Every moment matters. If you win a moment, it’s now gone, you have to win the next one. If you lose a moment, that is gone, you have to win the next one.

“Going back to Saturday: we had the ball, we dropped it, somebody didn’t kill it, Leinster got it, we missed a tackle and they scored, so we effectively lost three moments in that one passage and that cost us a try.

“In the big games it essentially comes down to who can pile enough of those little mini wins on top of each other us on them.”

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It’s not the first time that’s happened this season, and you can hark back on most of Ulster’s defeats this season to see where those “moments” have eluded them. Giving up two early tries to Connacht and conceding four tries in 15 second half minutes to La Rochelle spring to mind.

Rory Best dejected after the game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Speaking of La Rochelle, it is they who come to Kingspan Stadium tomorrow (kick-off 1pm) for a vital Champions Cup clash that is simply a must-win for Ulster if they want to make it to the knockouts for the first time since 2014.

It’s tense in Pool One, with only one of Ulster, La Rochelle or Wasps guaranteed to come out of the pool. With only five points separating the three teams, two wins from the last two pool games would send any of the three into the last eight.

The problem for Ulster – as well as their wretched recent form – is that, unlike their rivals, they don’t have the fall-back of a game against already-eliminated Harlequins.

That means it’ll more than likely take two wins for Ulster to progress, and that’s not guaranteed against the all-conquering brutes of Les Jaunes et Noirs, boosted by the recent arrivals of former All Blacks Rene Ranger and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

La Rochelle have hit a little bit of a speed bump recently, despite still being second in the Top 14, but Ulster can take heart from the fact that the French side haven’t won in four away from home, including a very off-colour performance in Coventry against Wasps.

Admittedly they rested the likes of star back row Victor Vito, captain Jason Eaton and human bulldozer Levani Botia for that game, but the blueprint is there for beating them: their easy-on-the-eye offloading game does not work in the wrong conditions.

So, a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Belfast. There’s a good chance that’ll happen at least.

“We’re forgetting about the PRO14, but we’re not forgetting about the game last Saturday and we need to use that going in,” Best states. “With this competition, we’ve put ourselves in a strong position and it’s up to us now that we make sure we take a step forward.

>While our season as a whole isn’t in the balance on Saturday, our European season is at crunch time now. Round five or six everyone is jostling for position and this is when you take a big step forward.

“This is our last home game, so you lose this and you’re really on the back foot and you’re asking yourselves to go to Wasps and get a result and hope that other things go your way.

“We’ve been in that position before where we’ve lost out with teams scoring in last minutes and other teams you’re not expecting to win, winning. It’s not where you want to be and you keep your destiny in your control as much as you can.

“This is a new competition for us and a competition that we are in a good position in through good performances along the way and we need to carry that on now.

He added: “(La Rochelle) will look at this as fresh for them as well. I know they lost away to Wasps but they’ll look at this as a great opportunity to rectify that and essentially qualify.

“But for us it’s about making sure that we dictate things and we don’t wait and see how much they off-load or get their big carriers into the game. We’ve got to go in and test where they are.

“We’ve got to shock them with how tough it’s going to be to come to Belfast and win.”

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