Best is still to come vows confident Ulster captain Rory
Ulster captain Rory Best is singing off the same hymn sheet as his colleagues in stressing the self-belief in the squad these days.
Last weekend he had his first run-out in Ulster colours since the 9-6 Heineken Cup victory over Biarritz at Ravenhill on January 15.
It did not go as planned, for having entered the fray with 20 minutes to go he promptly found his game-time halved when he was sin-binned. Whoops.
“I was frustrated with myself for that. I’d felt I could come on and maybe make a bit of a difference but unfortunately . . . no, it was silly,” Best admitted.
He appreciates the fact that on-field leadership is no longer down to him alone. There are others to help share the load now. That is a development which has helped Ulster’s cause enormously this season, not least while the Six Nations Championship was running.
Ulster had five fixtures during that series and won four. It seems the days of them being knocked out of their stride when international players are called away may just be a thing of the past.
Best is delighted with that development. Reflecting on what happened in his absence this season, he said: “The prime example is the way Ruan (Pienaar) played in those games. Three of the last five he has won right at the death for us.
“It hasn’t just been the penalties he has kicked; it’s been the way he has got us the territory knowing that if we got a penalty it would be kickable.
“It’s the same with Johann (Muller) and Pedrie (Wannenburg). These guys have grown up in South Africa, they have played in winning South African national teams and winning club teams. They know what it’s like to close out and to finish off a season.”
He underlines David Humphreys’ part in bringing in exactly the right calibre and type of players Ulster needed.
“Leadership was one of the qualities David very much looked for when he was bringing people in,” said Best. “Obviously we wanted successful guys who not only are top drawer rugby players but are used to winning.
“We knew we needed that little bit of leadership across the board. Now what has happened is it has brought out leaders everywhere — Ian Humphreys, for example. Whenever he comes in and plays, he now takes that role so he’s bringing more out of Paddy (Wallace) and Andrew (Trimble).
“Boys who have it, and have the experience, are taking more and more responsibility, which is great. There’s no doubt it probably comes from the confidence of knowing that there are plenty of others around you, so another voice is brilliant.”
He cites last weekend’s win against Glasgow as proving Ulster’s tough new inner core and their new-found refusal to yield.
“Obviously that game was a bit scrappy, but that’s the sort of game that previously we’d been losing,” he said. “When you have that little bit of belief it goes a long way and it breathes in a little confidence. Right up to the dying minutes you feel you’re going to win the game.
“That’s where we want to be and that’s where we are at the minute.
“Now we’re going in against Scarlets having won eight of our last nine so we’re in a very good place. But you miss one or two of those kicks and suddenly you go away a little more deflated.
“Everyone was down after the Glasgow game. We knew we hadn’t played well. But I can guarantee the changing room on Monday morning would have been a lot more down had Ruan not kicked that penalty right at the end.”
Right now the skipper is buoyed up by his own confidence and that within the Ulster squad as a whole. Nevertheless there is evident respect as he talks about tonight’s opponents.
“Scarlets are a good team. They’ve been right up there the whole season but now they find themselves out of the top four,” added Best.
“They know they need to win to stay in with a shout of the play-offs and we’re now sitting third so we want to drive on and make sure that we are in that top four.
“We’re a very ambitious group of players and we want to win every competition we’re in. This week it’s making sure that come semi-finals time in the Magners League in mid-May we’re in there pushing for a home tie.”