Heineken Cup: London calling a different tune for Rory Best
Twickenham trip whole new ball game for Ireland star
Rory Best has sat in Irish team dressing rooms with Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam up for grabs.
But even against those yardsticks, Saturday ‘s Ulster versus Leinster Heineken Cup final at Twickenham is going to be a pretty special occasion for him.
At European club-level, this is as good as it gets and the 29-year-old Ulster and Irish hooker knows that. Having run out at Twickenham in a green jersey, he cannot wait to emerge from the same tunnel wearing the white of his province. Bring it on.
“I’m excited. It’s something we’ve talked about and it’s a bit different to be going there this weekend with Ulster,” he admits.
“It’s going to be something very special. You don’t really realise how small the province is until you start to do something like this cup run. This has reminded me of that; we’ve had so much support and so many well-wishers — some of them the most unlikely people.
“I was in a wee tea-shop in Gilford and people there were wishing us all the best. They aren’t rugby people, but everybody seems to be aware of this match.”
As was the case in their Heineken Cup quarter-final inter-pro against Munster at Thomond Park, Ulster are going into Saturday’s final wholly convinced rather than merely hopeful that they are more than capable of upstaging the holders.
“We knew we were better than Munster and that we could beat them, but we knew we’d have to play well,” he explains. “It’s very much the same this weekend.
“We’ve seen Leinster in two Heineken Cup finals, winning them both, so they know the occasion and everything that goes with it.
“But we know all about them, too, having played them so often. They will play to a certain level and for us to win the game we have to make sure that we go there and play really well.
“It is about how we play. It’s not a case of us relying on them playing badly because that creates a whole different mindset.”
The rivals have never met in the Heineken Cup and although they do cross swords regularly in the RaboDirect PRO12 — five occasions in the past two seasons, with Leinster triumphant on each of those occasions — it is never with full-strength sides on the pitch.
This time it will be, this time rather than Ulster Light v Leinster Light, it’s Ulster v Leinster for real.
“That was the case against Munster as well,” Best reminds you. “Because it will be two full-strength sides, this is going to be very interesting.”
He continues: “I have a lot of faith in this Ulster team. There is no doubt that the Leinster team is a very, very good one, but if you were to put the two XVs beside each other on paper I think you’d find a lot of independent people including as many players from Ulster as from Leinster.
“And I think that’s a pretty fair reflection. I think that’s the mark of where we are at the minute.”
The battle of the finalists’ front five forwards has the makings of an epic, not least because they know each other so well. For example, Leinster’s first-choice props — Cian Healy and Mike Ross on the loose and tight-head sides respectively — Best’s front row colleagues in the Ireland team.
Then add the fact that Ulster number one, Tom Court, normally is understudy for that Leinster pair. And that John Afoa is a World Cup-winning All Black whose contribution since joining Ulster last autumn has been immense.
Moving back one division, Ulster’s South African skipper Johann Muller and Leinster’s New Zealander Brad Thorn have clashed in the Super14 and on the international stage. And twice-capped Ulster lock Dan Tuohy has attended enough Irish camps to know Leinster captain Leo Cullen’s game pretty thoroughly. Intriguing head-to-heads everywhere, then.
“Two quality prop forwards,” is Best’s description of Messrs Healy and Ross. “I’ve enjoyed playing with them for Ireland and obviously we know their strengths and we have to be on our guard against those.
“The flip side is that because we do know them, we feel we can come up with a few things ourselves to counter their strengths.
“But we’re under no illusions; not only do they have two Irish props but they have Ireland’s scrum coach as well. So it’s going to be a tough ask for us.”
But like his colleagues, he saw Clermont Auvergne subject the Leinster scrum to a rigorous examination in the semi-final in Bordeaux. However, while Ulster will have taken heart from that, Best points out that Leinster sorted out their first-half problems during the break.
“That’s what they do; they figure things out on the run and then they counter them,” Best concedes.
“But our set-pieces have got us a long way so far in this cup, so we need to make sure that we get our performance in those to where we want them to be rather than worrying too much about what Leinster will be doing.”
Parting shot? “We believe we can win this, but if we’re to do it then we’re going to have to get everything just right,” he replies.