Rory Best drives at Johnny Sexton in the Pro12 semi-final loss to Leinster in 2011. Billy Stickland/INPHO
weight of history

Best: The pressure’s on Leinster, it’s their home semi-final and no one’s ever lost one

There are some big bad statistics pointing to a Leinster win, but Ulster believe their momentum can help them rise above the numbers.

ONE BY ONE Ulster players and coaches pursed their lips and nodded along, making the effort to remain stoic and avoid being dragged down by the weight of some foreboding statistics.

We’ve now been through six years of Pro12 semi-finals, and all 12 have been won by the home team. Compounding matters, Ulster have their own unwanted habit of falling in or around the final hurdle – more often than not at the hands of Leinster in the RDS – and that does little to engender bullish confidence either.

And yet there is a steely resilience about this team and they are buoyed byfour straight victories in the run-in to the play-offs including a comprehensive win over their M1-linked rivals three weeks ago. Rory Best has just never seen the point in not facing negatives head on and getting them out of the way.

“They’re a quality side that’s used to winning play-off games, they’re probably used to beating us in play-off games,” Best says in praise of Leinster while overlooking the pitch where they were beaten all ends up on 30 April.

“The flip-side of that is that they’re at home, the top-ranked team in the competition. So there is a bit of pressure on them to perform. Historically, there’s never been a team to win an away semi-final. We feel we’re geared up and we want to be the first team to do that.

There is an element where there’s a bit of pressure off us, because they’re expected to win. We expect to perform and pitch-up. We’re preparing for a game.

He added:”It’s one that we feel we’re up for and in a good place to overcome At the same time, the pressure’s on them, it’s their home semi-final and no one’s ever lost one.”

Director of rugby Les Kiss is priming his team to smash that quirk of the competition tomorrow night. The Australian also veered into a swamp of data to highlight the uphill struggle of playing in the RDS, but with a view to distilling the semi-final back down to what it means in the here and now to the province.

Les Kiss Kiss warms his side up before a disappointing defeat in the RDS in November. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“The key learning in all honesty is that you know it’s a tough place to win,” Kiss says of the November loss in Dublin.

“They don’t yield a lot there, but we can go on about it as much as we want. If we’re prepared to step into the space and play our game, we’ve got a chance.

Semi-finals, usually you say they’re 50-50, but history points to signs home advantage can help. Maybe it’s 55-45 or 60-40. We have to do the things that make it 50-50 as much as possible.

“The conversations we’ve had are about moving in another direction in terms of saying: it’s a big game, it’s a semi-final. We’ve got to turn up. If we get through you’ll have to go away again, so we have to get through that as part of the challenge.”

Where once Ulster were a team who were guilty of dropping a few gears on the road and turning everything up to 11 once back at Ravenhill, they have worked to become a much more consistent unit. Though Kingspan Stadium hasn’t lived up to the ‘Fortress Ravenhill’ brand this season, they have been able to make up for home defeats with some impressive performances outside Belfast, not least the final-day bonus point picked up away to Ospreys.

There is a sense of momentum around Ulster as they aim to rise above the weight of history and, finally, make a little.

Rory Best Best stands for photographs in Kingspan Stadium this week. Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

“There’s been a lot made of the fact we haven’t won anything in, what, 10 years now,” Best says before highlighting why he believes that a change is coming.

“Every year we’ve got to the play-offs we’ve felt we’re geared up to win it. This year’s no different — the difference in previous years is probably that we’d get to the end of the season and whoever’s left standing takes the field.

“We get injuries leading into it and we’re hanging on by a thread. We were nearly peaking at Christmas, New Year and after that everyone’s battered and bruised.

This year it feels different. We’ve got almost a full squad. Bar a couple of big players, it’s been a settled 23 over the last three or four games with only one or two missing out.

It’s been a tough season, the disappointment of the World Cup and everything around that, it feels like you’re back enjoying rugby again. Before that it felt like a job.

“Now we’re back and it’s a young, exciting bunch of players up here. It’s infectious to be around and you feel you’re enjoying playing rugby again.”

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