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'To play 200 times for this province, you'd never dream of that'

Ulster captain Rory Best makes his 200th appearance for the province in tonight’s inter-pro against Leinster.

Image: CameraSport/Simon King/INPHO

THERE ARE TIMES when you should sit up and pay attention.

Say, for instance, Saturday 7 November 2004 at what was then known as Ravenhill. Not that anybody then knew that a fresh-faced young hooker was making the first appearance of what would be an illustrious Ulster career.

As Rory Best took the field against Munster’s feared pack — including the likes of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy — there can’t have been too many tipping the forward for greatness.

And yet, as he sits with a wide grin on his face ahead of his 200th provincial appearance, Best admits it’s something he never even dreamed imaginable.

“It really doesn’t seem that long ago since the first cap,” he admits with a small laugh.

“To play 200 times for this province, you’d never dream of that. You dream of playing for them maybe, but 200 caps is… whenever you get away from it and reflect, you’ll be proud.”

He’s seen many compatriots fall by the wayside on their way to the double century.

Brother Simon, a prop and his predecessor as captain in 2007, would surely have reached the two-ton but for an unfortunate heart problem that forced his early retirement.

Flanker David Pollock was another who saw injury curtail what looked to be a very promising Ulster career in its infancy. And, say what you want about the decision to force his departure, but a certain Ruan Pienaar surely wouldn’t have been far off the milestone himself come retirement.

On top of that, reaching 200 having been missing for so many games due to both international call-ups and injuries is a testament to what a loyal and reliable servant Best has been for his province in those 13 years.

Now they need him more than ever.

“You have to up for it,” is the veteran’s assement of today’s clash with Leinster [KO 6.30pm, Sky Sports and BBC NI].

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

“We always talk about these interpros and how big they are, especially at the minute, and there’s none bigger than Leinster because they are the top province over the last… I was going to say two or three years, but it’s probably more like six or seven now with the way their run has been.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us but it gets you going. We’ve been reasonably well looked after in the early part of the week and a lot will be about the mental side of the game and making sure that we, to use a bit of a cliché, hit the ground running on Saturday evening.”

As seen, the scale of today’s game isn’t lost on the 35-year-old, who will make just his second appearance of the season for Ulster after suffering a hamstring tear just a couple of weeks after returning to training.

With the conference system in the Guinness Pro14 pitting Les Kiss and Leo Cullen’s charges in the same conference, the race for the top three and a place in the play-offs is on with the Scarlets leading the way.

Winning your home games is crucial, especially against Leinster, and falling too far behind them — with trips to the RDS and Parc y Scarlets still to come — will be a tough ask for Ulster to make up.

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It won’t be an easy task against a side with two bonus points from their last three wins over Munster, Montpellier and Glasgow, and Best knows they’re a special team.

“They obviously have some very, very good players,” Best admits. “You look across the board and whenever the Irish squad announcement is but there will be a lot of Leinster players in it, which suggests they have a lot of very talented individuals, and a lot of individuals that have come through the Leinster systems, so they know how special it is to play for their province, which they play on.”

“I would say it’s a special thing about Irish rugby, the provincial set-up, because it means so much more to play for your province.

“Leinster have obviously a conveyor belt of players coming through there and I think that they have some fairly good half backs and they have a very good back-row no matter which three they pick. So I think if you can get that sort of core it makes you a very good team, as you see with them.

“It’ll be a tough ask because they’re very, very good because they’re a very good rugby team.”

Ulster:

15. Charles Piutau
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. Aaron Cairns

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Chris Henry
8. Jean Deysel

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Ross Kane
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Robbie Diack
21. Jonny Stewart
22. Peter Nelson
23. Louis Ludik.

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Adam Byrne
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Noel Reid
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Dan Leavy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Seán O’Brien (captain)

Replacements:

16. Richardt Strauss
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Jack Conan
21. Luke McGrath
22. Cathal Marsh
23. Jordan Larmour

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