Looking Up

'We weren't enjoying our rugby... It has started to lift a bit of the gloom'

Ulster captain Rory Best says the province’s last four games have signalled a change in mood.

THERE’S STILL A Champions Cup qualification play-off game to be confirmed and played, most likely against the Ospreys on 18/19 May, but Ulster sense that things are beginning to look more positive for the province.

Having impressed in the first-half against Munster on Saturday in Limerick, scoring three tries to lead 24-14, it was obviously a major disappointment not to push on and earn a bonus-point win that ultimately wouldn’t even have been enough to squeeze them into the Guinness Pro14 play-offs.

Tempers flare between Rory Best and Rhys Marshall Rory Best gets to grips with Munster's Rhys Marshall. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

But even after Ulster came up short in Thomond Park, captain Rory Best was in optimistic form.

The arrival of a new head coach this summer will signal a fresh start, while the recent run of three consecutive wins over Edinburgh, the Ospreys and Glasgow before the draw in Munster has lifted spirits.

Ulster could still end up in the Challenge Cup next season, but Best feels the squad have moved on notably since the 35-17 defeat away to the Cardiff Blues last month.

“That Cardiff loss felt like a real low, it felt like we weren’t going out to win games; we were going out not to lose them or not make mistakes,” said Best. “We were a team who weren’t enjoying our rugby.

“The one thing we’ve taken from the last four games is that we’re going out to try and enjoy our rugby and to try and fire a shot. You’re not going to win every moment of the game, but we’ve tried to win every moment available.

“We’ve dug deep and we wanted to show and give ourselves a platform. It’s not something we feared going into the Challenge Cup, even if it’s not ideal.

“But the thing for me would be if we drifted and drifted into the Challenge Cup and just kept drifting. Wherever we end up, we’ve done it firing a shot and we need to roll our sleeves up for one more effort.”

Best felt Munster’s introduction of Jean Kleyn and Stephen Archer off the bench had a telling impact on Saturday, his perception being that they changed the set-piece battle, while he also regretted Ulster playing too much rugby in their own half in the second 40 minutes.

Rory Best scores his second try Best scored two tries at the back of Ulster mauls. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster came up short when their close-range lineout failed in the final minute, but Best felt missing out on a win shouldn’t mask his side delivering another decent performance.

“It’s more about the nine months before,” said Best. “On 80 minutes, we got a kickable penalty in front of the posts at 24-24; on another day you kick it and win the game in Thomond Park, a very tough place to go and win.

“But because of the position we’d put ourselves in [needing a bonus-point win], we had to put it in the corner. We’re disappointed we missed the lineout but you can’t look at that one moment and say that cost us a quarter-final or cost us the match.

“There’s been a lot of stuff that’s gone on that put us in that position.”

Ulster must now begin to prepare for a fixture in three weekends’ time that may not even take place.

It’s a complicated scenario but the understanding on their part is that if Leinster win the Champions Cup and Newcastle, Gloucester and Pau finish in the top six of the Premiership and Top 14 – that’s no certainty – then Ulster won’t even have to play against the Ospreys.

For now, they’re planning on the fixture taking place and Best is pleased that Ulster is feeling like a happier place after a nightmare season.

“For me, these last four games have been really, really enjoyable,” said Best. “There has been a nice feeling around the place, amongst the players, amongst the staff. There has been a real want to go to work and to improve and to be better.

Ulster’s Rory Best Ulster are now preparing for a possible play-off game. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

“A lot of young guys have come in and they breathe a bit of fresh air and they have youthful exuberance.

“I am nearly twice the age of some of them, which is frightening. They bring that and that has lifted some of the more experienced guys. In many ways, it has started to lift a bit of the gloom that was around.

“It’s not just the players that say it, it’s everyone in the organisation. It’s just been a bit more of a spring in our step. The results help but it comes from feeling after a game that you have contributed. That has been the big thing for us.”

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