Rory Best: Not enough for Ulster to learn harsh lessons, it's time to deliver

The Ulster captain insists the loss of some big name players can have its benefits this season.

Image: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

IT WAS ABSOLUTELY gut-wrenching at the time, and Ulster captain Rory Best admits that it took his squad the guts of 42 days to recover from the home Heineken Cup quarter-final loss to Saracens.

Unfortunately for Best, the slap in the face that re-awakened his side against Leinster in the Pro12 semi-final, turned out to be another knock-out blow.

At 9 – 0 up in the RDS, Best says Ulster were ‘comfortable’. Every system was ticking over nicely and Leinster were being pushed to the edge of frustration until…

“Just again,” says Best, “losing Jacko to injury at that stage having just kicked a penalty with a few players coming back to match fitness we just fell away a little bit. Leinster, as they do with the players they have, produced one moment of individual brilliance and all of a sudden we had lost that game.”

It is those very moments Ulster need to prevent, and indeed invent for their own purposes, if they are to stop this heartbreaking cycle that sees them work into a position of strength only to fall at the final hurdle.

‘Right, we’ll learn from this…”

The sympathetic onlookers insist they’ll come good. They say all this pain is a worthwhile lesson that breeds character and big-game nous. Best is a 32-year-old double Six Nations champion who has had enough of lessons.

“We’ve said over the past few years, almost like it was an excuse: ‘right, we’ll learn from this and we’ll move on. We’ve a young group and we’re really looking to hit our best next year’. You hear all these phrases like ‘it’s a building process’. For me, we’ve done our learning.

“There’s only so many opportunities you have to win something. Certainly for me, as your career goes on a bit, those chances become less and less.

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Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and Jared Payne look on Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and Jared Payne watch on helplessly from the sidelines during Ulster's loss to Saracens. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

“That Saracens game and then the semi-final against Leinster, maybe some of the younger guys realised you can’t keep turning up and missing these opportunities. They won’t happen every year. We’re not a team that’s building, we’re a team that has been evolving over the last couple of years, but that’s not an excuse for falling short in big games.

“I thought last year in the group we had done that. Maybe in the past we would have fallen short against Leicester – ‘it didn’t matter, we qualified anyway’ – but we took that big step to get the home quarter-final. Then with a bit of bad luck maybe we didn’t make the next step again.”

And the Pro12 semi-final loss in the RDS only served to give the province another punishing kick just as they felt a surge of recovery.

“We sat down over the summer and looked back, and seeing that we’re 9 – 7 up. And at the time it felt like Leinster were leading for a long time. But now [we're] looking back and thinking, [there is] a collective realisation that we should have won that game.”

Rory Best Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A massive part of the reason for Ulster’s descent into the doldrums following those valiant failures was that many viewed it as the province’s last chance at European glory. Big names such as Tom Court, John Afoa and the retiring Johann Muller had already committed to the exit door long before Mark Anscombe and David Humphreys turned on their heels.

However, that very upheaval is a factor that Best now believes may serve to aid Ulster in getting the so-near-yet-so-fars of last season (and the year before that and the year before that) out of their system.

“One of the positives to losing so many players over the off-season [is] a lot of that emotional baggage has also gone. Guys that have played in really good Ulster teams that have fallen short, there’s a bit of a fresh influx of people who really want to go out and prove a point.

“This season, sitting down to plan and map out how we as players and management see this season, that was when we want to push on.”

He added: “When you look at some of our key decision makers, they were quite young, they’ve all got a year older now. We’ve probably got a tighter, probably the tightest group of senior players that I’ve known in a long time – spreading the load and decision-making and responsibility.

“I think we’re in a good place, but ultimately that means nothing if you don’t produce it on the pitch.”

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Sean Farrell

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