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'I've never finished the season feeling in better shape': Best leading fresh start in Ulster

The Ireland captain missed the June series, but has rehabilitated his hamstring and is determined to steer Ulster on a better course.

15 PRE-SEASONS AND…  well, not counting, as the case is for Rory Best.

A few days since returning to training with Ulster, the Ireland captain is asked about the running total of his pro rugby summers. He can’t retain the wince as he answers.

“15… I don’t like to talk about it.

“It was my wife who asked me how many it was and I was there trying to work it out.”

Much has changed since Best returned from university in Newcastle to chase Ulster caps. That tally sits at 208, add on his 111 Test caps and the numbers alone are almost enough to outline the wealth of experience and leadership the Poytnzpass man brings to any group he touches. So while he may be just two weeks away from his 36th birthday, he will remain a vitally important element for Ireland through to next year’s World Cup.

Rory Best celebrates winning Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

May delivered an untimely hamstring injury to keep the hooker out of Ireland’s tour to Australia. Rather than sit back to fear or ponder whether his body is creaking and beginning to show its seams, Best worked hard through the summer and put himself firmly on the front foot for a season where he will hope to lead a Grand Slam defence and yank Ulster up several rungs.

“It was a bit (frustrating),” says Best, looking back on his June far from the front line.

“They got me to train right up until the last Test and I got a lot of good work done with Phil Glasgow (IRFU head of physio and rehab). I’ve probably never finished the season feeling in better shape.

Monday-Friday was really good, I’d no pressure on. I got to train early, finish early, (but) then Saturday mornings were very frustrating watching. You think you’re in good form and then you come to 11 o’clock on Saturday morning and you’re not there.”

As Best stands pitchside after a vibrant open session in Letterkenny RFC, that annoyance and frustration is fading and it seems the experience feels well worthwhile. After returning to training on Monday, he is pleased to have pushed himself through a week when multiple strands began coming together for the fast-approaching Pro14 kick-off.

“It was meant to be (a somewhat gentle return), but we stepped into quite a bit of rugby there today. Whenever you get into team-on-team and a bit of competitiveness, it’s hard to stay within your return to play protocols. You kind of fire into it, see where it takes you.

“It’s hard to watch the rest of your team work really hard while you’re being eased back in, but today was a lot more enjoyable being in the mix with everyone else.”

An added bonus, Best points out, is that this was an all-encompassing week for the northern province. Rather than get stuck into the daily routine and the regular commute, the entire squad has been touring the province with open sessions in Coleraine and Letterkenny slotted either side of bonding sessions in Limavady.

“A good balance between working hard on the pitch and switching off and enjoying each other’s company and building something,” says Best before launching stinging accusations of Lazer-tag cheating at Chris Henry and Andy Warwick.

Ulster’s Rory Best talks to the team after the match Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“This is the first week where we really have everyone. Billy (Burns) is just coming in, all the internationals back, Jordi (Murphy) coming up. It’s good the way it’s fallen, with Ireland camps coming up and bits and pieces and players back, it’s worked out perfectly: the first week we’ve been together and what we’ve done is all go away from home.”

We’ve a good bunch of guys. We’ve got to concentrate on getting a good team ethos, a good team culture and this week has been a lot about that. We discovered that it doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go somewhere. You get together and you’re working hard and working as a group.”

It’s the sort of week that aligns with a concerted effort to wipe the slate clean and start, in many senses, afresh in the northern province. From CEO level, down through head coach, strength and conditioning and playing staff, there are new faces and ideas floating around the Kingspan Stadium. Meanwhile, the old heads are determined to push away from the annus horribilis on and off the pitch.

More important than the new broom, though, is the same old attitude Best is demanding from his men.

“It’s a bit of a clean slate, but at the same time there are a lot of players around (from last season). The one thing we said at the end of last season: regardless of results, we’ve got to show we prepare for a game and if we lose a game by a refereeing decision or a bounce of a ball, but we fought tooth and nail to the end we’ll take that.

“For the last six games, five wins and a draw against fairly decent opposition, we were really happy with that. You need to take that in because you need the boys to realise that they get reward for the effort they put in during the week.

“It isn’t just a case of, ‘we’ll pitch up Friday night and we’ll be grand’. It is work. That’s probably something we took a bit for granted, because four or five years ago we had four or five world class players who probably could do that, now it’s about building.”

Of course, Ulster needn’t look far for a benchmark to build towards. Clubs from far greater distances cast eyes to Leinster, as European and Pro14 champions, as a standard-bearer. Best admits a tinge of jealousy watching the silverware go their way in May, that’s the ceiling he dreams of hitting before hanging up his boots.

“To see that, you want a piece of that. Because international success is brilliant, but there is always something special - especially in a club you’ve grown up wanting to play for and spent 14 years playing for – to achieve success against a lot of the odds would be really, really special.”

Rory Best before the game Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Silverware remains the target Ulster want to build towards, but the week traversing the province and devoting lengthy portions of their day to meeting young fans and signing autographs also brings into focus the culture being driven to act as the foundation to everything.

Before a touching moment when his youngest son Richie begins to shout an important question from the back of the crowd, Best references how his elder son Ben – exposed to his father’s team-mates too often to ever be starstruck by Ulster players – looks up to Tottenham Hotspur’s finest.

The way he’d react to seeing Harry Kane, it’s something you’ve to be aware of: you are a role model and you are responsible for your behaviour and it’s important that you show that when you’re out and about here.

“Who knows? There could be somebody else here – four five or six years of age – in 20 years’ time they could be lifting a European Cup as captain of Ulster. If you don’t get out and inspire these people, how do you know?

Rory Best leave the pitch Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Coming to the likes of Letterkenny, Limavady, Coleraine and really getting away from the administrative centre of Belfast, granted (his own home club) Banbridge is much closer to Belfast, but still when you’re young it seems a long way away and to see players in the flesh, you can’t put a price on that.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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