Derby is just the tonic we need: Rory Best
When the Magners League fixtures are published during the summer, Ulster followers instinctively search first for the dates of the coming season’s six inter-provincial clashes.
To date in 2010/11 Ulster have played four such matches — and they have yet to win.
A 15-15 draw with Connacht in Galway, home and away defeats — 16-6 and 35-10 respectively — at the hands of Munster and a 30-13 Ravenhill whipping by Leinster are blights on Ulster’s otherwise excellent campaign.
Those are two ghosts they are anxious to exorcise, starting tonight at the RDS in Dublin (8pm kick-off) where — against Leinster — they have a chance to underline the extent of the progress they have made this season, albeit that they must stand convention on its head if they are to do so.
The Irish capital has been a singularly unhappy hunting ground for Ulster since the advent of professionalism.
Tonight Brian McLaughhlin’s men line out against opponents who booked their place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals by beating Aviva Premiership leaders, Leicester Tigers, at Lansdowne Road last Saturday.
The following afternoon Ulster bowed out of the competition after losing to Northampton Saints, the club currently occupying fourth position in the English series.
The post-match mood in the rival Irish provinces’ camps could hardly have been more different. While Leinster have been borne along by the euphoria stemming from their triumph, Ulster have spent the week picking themselves up off the canvas.
It is to their credit that they have succeeded to the point where they now see tonight’s return to action at the RDS as something wholly positive. Captain Rory Best speaks for the entire group in saying that a straight-back-in-at-the-deep-end clash with such fierce rivals is just the tonic.
It’s a spin echoed by McLaughlin. The words, as per the hymn sheet from which they are singing, proclaim that there could be no better pick-me-up in the wake of a huge disappointment than to be pitched in against neighbours and rivals.
Straight back in the saddle after falling off the bike, right?
“It’s quite good for us to come off the back of the disappointment of Sunday to then go into another big game where we know we have to be physically on the money and, in terms of intensity, have to be right up there again,” the skipper explains.
“There’s a little bit of a fear factor that a good team like that — if you’re not there — are going to punish you. So we know we need to be there.”
Whilst much has been made of the quality of the Leinster back line, Best knows only too well how potent they have become in the pack, too.
“The so-called dominant Leicester scrum went to the Aviva and, at best — from their point of view — achieved parity, although I think Leinster definitely got on top of them in that area of the game.
“That speaks volumes for where the Leinster front row are at the minute.”
Leinster have an out and out scrum coach in Greg Feek whose only job is to perfect and fine-tune that set piece. Does Best re
gard that as being significantly advantageous to them?
“I think in any team if you have the sole focus of a scrummaging coach it’s going to help you; if it doesn’t then they’re not going to stay in the job very long.
“To have somebody there whose sole responsibility is to look after the scrum, to review opposition scrums and your own scrum and to break it down into really small segments because they have the time to really concentrate on that, then I think there is no doubt that he has taken their scrum from a reasonably weak one to a very, very strong one.”
Coach McLaughlin says: “It’s a huge game for both teams in the Magners League and Leinster’s home record is outstanding so we’re under no illusions about what we’re going into.
“We know them inside out so it’s a matter of us going down there, having the right mindset and making sure that we’re in the right place, which I think we are.
“We did well last week (against
Northampton) so we were very pleased with most aspects of our game. We now know what you have to do when you’re in a European Cup quarter-final.”
Ulster will go into the RDS showdown with all guns blazing. McLaughlin insists that Leinster — that forthcoming Heineken Cup semi-final notwithstanding — will approach it in exactly the same manner. This fight with the neighbours is for real.
“It’s an inter-pro and Leinster will want a home semi-final in the Magners campaign, just like we do. So it’s a blood and guts game; both teams will be going at it hell for leather, I have no doubt about that,” McLaughlin predicts.