Best: Ulster have learned from last defeat to Northampton
Rory Best is brutally honest in his assessment of Ulster’s last meeting with Northampton Saints.
April 10, 2011 is the date on which they squared up at stadiummk where a place in the semi-final of that year’s Heineken Cup awaited the victors.
Having trailed 13-10 at half-time, Northampton recovered to win 23-13, largely as a result of having squeezed Ulster into submission as the second period progressed.
His frank admission is that, two seasons ago, Ulster weren’t quite up to the challenge, a fact which eases the pain of that quarter-final defeat.
“When you look back you realise that we probably weren’t a good enough side to have been semi-finalists or finalists that year so that takes a wee bit of the edge off it,” he says.
“At the same time, for 40, 50 minutes we were very much in that game but we coughed up a few errors and it cost us dearly.”
As a proud front row forward, defeat was a huge blow for Best to absorb. But now, with the passage of time and the benefit hindsight, his pain has subsided somewhat. As well as that his view of events that hot, sunny afternoon in Milton Keynes has become clearer.
“A lot has happened since then and we’ve gone on to do a fair bit so a bit of the hurt has eased,” said the most capped international hooker is Irish rugby.
“Obviously we know a bit about them from two years ago, but anyone who is a fan of rugby knows what they have done in the Premiership and how well they’ve gone so you have to take a bit of respect.”
Best also concedes that two years ago Ulster were perhaps overly-dependent on a couple of key individuals, chief amongst Stephen Ferris.
“We were short,” he recalls. “Stevie didn’t play that day and we were heavily reliant on him then. Certainly we were a few key personnel short of being a very good team.”
From an Ulster perspective, things have moved on in the interim.
Their squad is much stronger and deeper than was the case back then, so their over-reliance on one or two is a thing of the past. These days work-load is much more evenly spread.
In addition, the painful lessons of that April 2011 defeat have proved hugely beneficial.
“We have evolved a lot. We learnt a lot from that game, which gave us great experience last year,” Best pointed out. “And now we hope to learn from the experience of last year and to go one better this year.”
‘Going one better’ would mean winning the Heineken Cup and within the Ulster squad there is conviction that they are good enough to do that. Best, with the experience of 62 international caps to call upon, highlights the thin line between success and failure in big fixtures. He knows, too, how crippling a lack of ambition can be.
“We know that in these tight games it comes down to big games and big performances,” he insists.
“We can’t just rely on wining our home games and hoping that will be enough. You have to be targeting every single game to win it and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said, his sights fixed on Franklin’s Gardens.
There is real belief on his part, but that is true of Ulster’s players as a group, a point he emphasised by saying: “When the team is named from one to 15 we all take a lot of confidence in that you look around the circle, there’s so much quality here and the results have shown that.
“But obviously we’re a lot harder than just results here; we want good performances too and we haven’t really had that in the last three games.
“We have a lot of big game players and this is the biggest game of the season.”