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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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'The dressing room, it was deadly silent': Ulster disperse into November with plenty to chew on
Rory Best was left analysing Ulster’s breakdown shortcomings rather than celebrating his 200th provincial cap.

HAVING ROARED INTO this campaign with four straight wins, Ulster have now lost three out of their last five to cede momentum in the Pro14′s conference B.

Granted, the heaviest of those defeats came away to a sensational La Rochelle side, but one point away to Zebre and nothing to show from a home clash with Leinster leaves Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes with a lot to ponder through November.

To compound matters, reigning champions Scarlets won a bonus point victory in their own derby against Cardiff Blues to put a seven-point gap between them and third-place Ulster; the only side they’ve lost to in the league so far this season.

So often the sort of fixture that brings the very best out of Ulster, Saturday’s sold-out clash with Leinster descended into a listless 10 – 25 home defeat. Leo Cullen felt the three-try victors were a touch ‘flat’, having gone scoreless through the second half the hosts must have felt a damn sight lower than that.

“That was one of the disappointing things,” Kiss said post-match in the Kingspan Stadium.

“They make mistakes, we force some errors and we did not capitalise on them.

“We did not get into the game from set-piece and from just not being on the ball when we needed to be. Because when they sniped it they got onto it and turned us over a couple of crucial times, couple of simple knock-ons.

We have spoken in the dressing room, it was deadly silent. We have an opportunity to travel together as a group without some of our Irish players, but it is important we stick together and find the solutions.

“We know we have got the solutions. We just have to make sure we do it when it matters.”

Kiss will keep the full elaboration on what those solutions are in-house, but he touches on them above: a malfunctioning line-out, kicking errors, handling errors and a loss of concentration on attacking rucks. Breakdown expert Rory Best analysed the latter shortcoming:

“Every time we broke them with a clean line-break, within a couple of phases we get turned over,” the Ireland captain explained with more than a touch of frustration in his voice.

“It was almost the closer we got to their line — at times, not always, but at times — the less urgent you become to clean out the ruck. And we maybe got a little bit, when they were tackle bouncing out of the ruck and leaving it alone, we were going: ‘this is reasonably easy.’ Then after three rucks, bang, they would go for it.

Rory Best Darren Kidd / INPHO Darren Kidd / INPHO / INPHO

“And when you let someone like a Sean O’Brien in on that ball… like you have to win those little moments when you get there.”

Best, of course, was speaking after winning his 200th Ulster cap. A hell of a landmark, but a hellish way to mark it.

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Thinking back on the highlights of his career, the hooker picks out the memories of playing alongside his brother Simon, a Celtic League win and a Heineken Cup quarter-final win in Thomond Park. But he’s greedy for something else to top off this Ulster career.

“When you start off many many moons ago, somebody says: fast forward 13 years and you will get to play 200 times for Ulster and not only that you will get to run out at home against Leinster with three healthy kids, that would be 99% of everything you want.

“Obviously to get the 100% you want the performance and the result because you are greedy.

“It started off as the perfect night, but unfortunately you have to be honest and say I have had a lot of milestones and I feel that (was) one of the most disappointing ones in a game I felt we were in a position to go and win. And we just, for whatever reason, we kept letting them off the hook.”

Best will take his 200 provincial caps to Carton House this week where he will prepare to add to his 104 internationals. Meanwhile, 25 of his Ulster team-mates are off to face the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth with a lot of work to do and not a whole lot of training time to do it.

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