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'We have to create our own legacy': Best unmoved by the spirit of '99 and focused on Ulster's present

Approaching the 20th anniversary of Ulster’s European title, Best doesn’t want the current crop to remain empty-handed when the next big gathering rolls around.

A bloodied Best post-match.
A bloodied Best post-match.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Sean Farrell reports from the Kingspan Stadium

IT FELT NICELY orchestrated, an easy psychological carrot to dangle in front of Ulster as inspiration on into a defining day of this European campaign. But the appearance and honouring of the Heineken Cup-winning 1999 team pre-match at the Kingspan had little to do with the province’s rugby department.

In the wake of the 26-22 win, Rory Best was asked what impact the presence of the fabled ‘Spirit of ’99′ had on the squad’s preparations.

“I think at the start of the game when we trying to do our warm-up,” came a wry enough opening from Best.

The looming 20th anniversary of Ulster’s European title must feel like an almost mocking landmark for Best, who has worked the majority of the intervening years attempting to repeat the feat. He is done trying to figure out what the ‘Spirit of ’99′ is. Instead, he is determined to look to the present and the future.

“I think for too many years we’ve looked back at 1999, saying ‘we have to replicate that’, but we don’t,” says the Ulster captain.

“We have to create our own legacy here. We’ve got to build, we’ve got to see how far we can push this group. I think we talked about it in 2006 when we won something, and then 2012 when we got to finals, but it became words and not actions.

We thought it would just happen and I think that’s the experience that we’re going to have to get into this team, that we don’t want to be sitting here in another 10 years introducing the ‘Spirit of ’99′ again because we haven’t done anything since.”

The 36-year-old hooker raised a laugh too when pointing out that most in his dressing room have no idea where they were on 30 January 1999 while Best had a few sneaky cans on a bus from Portadown to see his province raising silverware in Lansdowne Road.

Sitting beside him, 22-year-old Jacob Stockdale wasn’t even on most people’s radar when Ulster last made a European quarter-final, never mind win it outright.

“I haven’t played knock-out rugby with Ulster before and that’s obviously something I want to tick off,” says Saturday’s two-try hero.

“It’s a massive aspiration for me. There’s not many guys in the squad that have so for us, do what we have been doing all season and playing as well as we can going to the last game… it’s about doing the things right against Leicester. We have to beat Leicester first of to make sure we definitely get the opportunity to play knock-out rugby.”

Ulster are in prime position to take one of the best runners-up spots (their 18 points bettered only by Glasgow Warriors as things stand) in the quarter-finals, but they will most likely need something from their trip to Welford Road to ensure Saturday’s win over Racing 92 counts for something more than just a measure of their strength on home turf.

And remembered for any reason other than the abuse a directed at Simon Zebo.

Virimi Vakatawa is congratulated by Simon Zebo and Henry Chavancy after scoring a try Stockdale watches on as Simon Zebo and Virimi Vakatawa celebrate a first-half try. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We’ve got to make sure that we pat ourselves on the back,” says Best with six fresh stitches along his left eye.

“That was a really tough task today and we got through it, but we’ve got to keep trying to get better because I think when you look at the top teams and look at their thirst to keep winning things, I think that we probably have lost a bit of that along the way.”

“We’re definitely a team that are trying to take steps forward. We are nowhere near where we want to be. I think probably the confidence we have shown in the way we have played, to get to the points tally we are at now versus last year… we scrapped it out, but I don’t think we were playing to the level that we are at the minute.

“And we need to tighten up a bit of our defence, they are a class team and they produce tries from nothing but I think for us and where we’re trying to go to, it’s all about the next game.

“You’ve got to enjoy these wins and enjoy these days, but we’ll come in on Monday and we’ll know that we are in a really strong position to go to Leicester and get something to go through.”

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Sean Farrell

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