Ulster and Ireland hooker Rory Best’s warning that Ulster are a lot better than they have shown so far this season probably was not what Castres wanted to hear.
Speaking at Newforge on Tuesday when Ulster unveiled their provisional squad for Friday night’s Heineken Cup tete-a-tete with the French Top 14 side, Best spoke shot from the hip.
“The big positive I’m looking at is that bar 60-65 minutes against Cardiff, we haven’t played really well,” he said.
“Okay, we’ve won five from five, but we know we can produce a whole lot more so that’s very encouraging going into a tough run of games and a new competition.
“We’re unbeaten. We’ve won five from five in the PRO12 after winning two and drawing the other one of our three pre-season friendlies, so we’re going well. But there’s a lot more to come from us.
“We’re very happy with where we are with our results but in terms of our performances we know we can do more.
“We’re looking in good shape but there are things we can improve on. Against Connacht, for example, on Friday night we got ourselves into really good positions but perhaps were just a wee bit loose with the ball at times.
“As I’ve said, we’re happy as a squad, but we know we need to produce more if we’re going to complete on two fronts and do well in this Heineken Cup.
“We know the reason for believing we can do that, for when you look at the quality of the players we have that’s the difference in this squad now compared to where it has been in the past number of years.
“When you look right across the board, there are quality players not only in our starting team but throughout the squad overall. We’ve yet to put out the same starting XV two games in a row and that’s pretty much unheard of in my time with Ulster.
“Those changes really haven’t been injury-enforced, either.”
As seems always to be the case with Best, this season has seen him pitched in at the deep end once again. Having last played for Ireland against New Zealand away back on June 23, injury and IRFU-enforced rest time kept him in dry-dock until last weekend when, finally, he made his first appearance of 2012/13, enabling him to clock up game-time ahead of Friday night’s Heineken Cup opener.
Remarkably, in view of his vast experience — 127 Ulster appearances plus 62 for Ireland, making him the most-capped Irish hooker in history — he admits to having been nervous going out to face Connacht.
“It didn’t seem that long ago that I’d played, until everybody started highlighting that date, and I counted it up and thought, ‘Right, and this is October so I suppose it is a pretty long time’.
“So yes, there were a few nerves. You didn’t want to step into the first Ulster team to lose this season and with set-piece having been going well you didn’t want to be the guy who disrupted that. All of those things were there, but that’s what goes with playing for Ulster.
“You only feel that way because it matters and if you ever reach the stage where it doesn’t it’s probably time to think about ending your career. Hopefully I’m nowhere near that. I’m still enjoying it.”
He enjoys the Heineken Cup in particular, because it demands the very best from players and teams. Best agrees it is the pinnacle of European club-level rugby, hence its importance and the hype that surrounds it year upon year.
“I think even the weather this week has let us know that there’s something special going on. It’s just nice — the sun comes out for a bit during the day and there’s a buzz around.
“This is the first selection where, once it’s named, you know this is our strongest team. We have a few injuries in the back row, but basically everyone is available and there’s going to be no experimentation here — this is the strongest side we can put out.
“Everyone is hopeful of a start in a new competition — one in which we did pretty well last year. And that has given a lot of us the hunger to go one step further.”