Best tells Europe of Ulster's passion for province
With Europe on the horizon, Ulster captain Rory Best has warned the super-rich French and English clubs that they can't put a price on Irish players' passion for their province.
From Ulster's victorious campaign in 1999, until their defeat to Leinster in the final of 2012, Irish sides won no less than nine Heineken Cup semi-finals but in the three years since only Clermont, Saracens and thrice-winners Toulon have advanced to European rugby's biggest game.
Les Kiss's side begin their latest Champions Cup tilt with a trip to Oyonnax next weekend, although both sides' playing budgets are dwarfed by those of fellow Pool 1 challengers Toulouse and Saracens who have used their wealth to assemble a glittering array of stars.
Best, however, has said that there is no substitute for representing your boyhood side.
"You're dealing against clubs with massive spending power but the unique thing that Irish rugby has - and I don't necessarily think it means more for us to play for Ulster than for someone to play for Saracens or Toulouse - there's definitely an element of guys in the provinces growing up dreaming of playing for those provinces," he remarked at the competition's launch yesterday at the Twickenham Stoop.
"That's something that you can't buy and you can't breed into somebody.
"It's unique to Ireland and it's what we have to build on and it's what we have to instil in the people we bring in," he said.
"This is more than just a team, this is something that you go from no age watching your heroes and then all of a sudden become that player," he added.
First, though, there is the small matter of Newport in the Pro12 on Sunday and the chance for Ulster to claim what would be a first away win since April.
The skipper is set to return for the clash, his first since the World Cup, but he admits that it has been far easier to recover from the physical exertions of his national duty than the mental scars.
He was in superb form for Joe Schmidt's side throughout September and October but could not stop Ireland crashing out to Argentina at the quarter-final stage.
After what will surely be the 33-year-old's last time at the tournament, the 2013 Lion is still preoccupied with what might have been had injury not struck several key members of the international squad.
Paul O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Peter O'Mahony and the suspended Sean O'Brien all missed the last eight reverse.
"The body does recover pretty quickly," he said.
"It was a fairly brutal finish to our tournament - Italy, France, Argentina - but you do get used to recovering quite quickly with the amount of games we play.
"Mentally is probably the hardest thing," he commented.
"Four years ago we were well beaten by the better team (against Wales), while we were well beaten on the day this time.
"It's the not knowing had we not have got the injuries, the ifs and buts, they're the things that take a lot longer to get over," he explained.
If Sunday represents a return for the hooker, then so too for Les Kiss who, having taken charge on an interim basis last season, will be leading Ulster for the first time in a permanent capacity after being handed the reins again earlier this week.
For Best and his team mates the Australian's arrival is unique in that it brings both continuity and new opportunity.
"It's an exciting time," he said.
"There's a bit of familiarity there too, it's not a sea change," he stated.
"There's been quite a bit of turmoil over the last couple of years, the last thing we need is another complete change," Best explained.
"I think everyone, no matter what their standing or perceived standing within that squad, when a new coach comes in feels it's their chance to impress."
He added: "Guys who have complained about not getting a go, everyone feels like it's a fresh start."