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Best laments lack of support behind Mark McCall after his '06 title with Ulster

‘We were ahead of a lot of teams at that point… Mark McCall has gone on to show how good a coach he is.’

THERE’S NO USE splattering on the lipstick. When you count the years to Ulster’s last trophy, the double figures squeal like a pig.

While the northern province have always made themselves particularly tough opposition at home and a regular challenger for trophies, coming closer in some years than others,  when the honour roll is called, the gap since 2006 is a painful one.

The Ulster team celebrate Rory Best celebrates behind Justin Harrison as he lifts the trophy in 2006. Source: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

If they prove unable to upset Glasgow in next weekend’s Pro14 semi-final in Scotstoun, the wait will tick beyond 13 years since a bright young crop with a quietly intelligent coach snapped up a Celtic League success.

Given that he has gone on to achieve so much and mold such quality with Saracens over the past decade, it might just feel a lifetime ago for Mark McCall.

For Rory Best, some stand-out glorious moments are crystalised in his memory, but more of it is a bygone haze.

“I still remember David Humphreys hitting the drop-goal for us to win that league,” the Ulster captain offers, the name of retired team-mates and even defunct clubs underlining the shifting sands of time.

“We beat Borders well at home and had a couple of injuries on the run-in, but it’s hard to remember it’s so long ago.”

Behind the unquestionable talent of the out-half, the excellent 23-year-old hooker, wings in the shape of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble with the peroxide-blonde Paddy Wallace inside, Ulster also had a gem of a coach.

Perhaps the second-place finish two years earlier, or even the Heineken Cup in 1999, counted against McCall in the wake of his triumph, however. After his title win in ’06, he ended up walking away with Ulster at the bottom of the table early in the 2007/8 season.

“He was a great coach,” says Best unequivocally, before looking back and lamenting that a homegrown coach in his 30s was not provided more structural support.

inpho_00221082 McCall and Best at training in Newforge in 2007. Source: Darren Kidd

“Everyone now is doing three-four-five-phase plays, but he was one of the first – at least that I worked under – who brought that in. We potentially didn’t have the best team in terms of individuals, but we were very organised.

“We played to our strengths and tactically we were a bit ahead of where a lot of teams were at that point. Mark has gone on to show how good a coach he is.

Unfortunately for us, the whole setup around him was quite inexperienced. From S&C to the coaches under Mark. Unfortunately when the pressure came on, that’s when you need experience to guide the ship a little bit. I think Ulster Rugby didn’t surround Mark with that.

“Right up to CEO, Mike Reid had come in from the amateur to professional (era) and we probably underestimated how well we had done to win the league. And when a few things went wrong the next year it all seemed to fall apart quite quickly.

“Ask a lot of the players who played under Mark, they were under no illusions how great a coach he was. 

“Obviously, it’s worked out well for him, it’s worked out well for us because we’ve got Dan (McFarland).

“He’s a good guy and a good coach, that season was a good year.”

Mark McCall celebrates McCall with the Champions Cup after Saracens' 2016 final win over Racing. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Best doesn’t slip into wistful sliding-door theories of what might have been possible with a tweak here and there to extend McCall’s time at home. Instead, he can see similar qualities shared between the squad which worked for McCall and the current crop boasting far fewer superstars, for now, than many iterations of Ulster in between.

“Probably one of the big things from that team was we didn’t know when we were beaten. We had a real… we won games in the last 10 minutes that we had no right to win. You pick up a couple of points here and there and those points proved (crucial), it allowed us to go into that last weekend not needing five points.”

“There are a lot of similarities. Especially if you look at our results at the start of the season. We were trying to combine a few things, Dan was only recently in and there was a bit of turnover of players.

“Sometimes it’s not as perfect as you want it to be, but you just have to roll up your sleeves and try to find something,” says Best as he nods to a comeback from 17 down to beat Edinburgh in September, a last-gasp draw at home to Benetton in January and even last weekend’s close shave with Connacht.

“This team has found ways to get points… so I think there are characteristics of that squad, not knowing when they’re beaten.

“Even on Saturday night, when Connacht get within a point, I’ve played in Ulster teams in the past where you’d have seen us go really defensive and we’d try to hang on for grim death.

“In fairness, we went and attacked, got a score… those are the sort of moments that, you can set a team up and you can have all the talent you want, but sometimes if you don’t have a bit of grit and determination to hang in in tough moments (you won’t win).

“That’s something you can’t really coach, sometimes it’s just there and this group has it.”

Rory Best after the game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Whether that grit is enough to see this group bridge a 13-year gap between trophies is much less certain. Best is now entering each Ulster game knowing it could be his last for his province, but where once he publicly demanded his team to force their way out of the runners-up slot and onto the podium, Best now calls on his young team-mates to simply keep pushing to improve.

“I think when you get a bit older and more experienced, you talk about wanting silverware rather than needing. Talk about progressing,” says the 36-year-old Ireland captain.

“I think we’ve taken massive steps. 12 months ago, if you’d have said we had a home quarter-final won and we’re into a semi-final, you’d probably have been laughed at. ‘How could the basket case turn it around to this?’

“We’ve taken massive steps, but I think what this group needs to do is just keep trying to get better.

“Over the years, I’ve been in groups with Ulster (as with the ’06 group) reasonably young cores. I think there was an assumption then that we’d just naturally get better; another year older, more experienced, it will just happen.

“We didn’t go out and make it happen.

“That’s what this group needs to do — rather than saying we need silverware to show how good we are, we need to keep getting better. If we keep getting better the silverware will come.

“Obviously I hope it’s this season, but if we can accelerate the way we’ve done in the past 12 months then this group has the potential to keep getting better.”

- Originally published at 07.00

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Sean Farrell

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