Magners League: Best fires up Ulster for vital contests
Rory Best knows Ulster’s next three games will go a long way to defining their season and defeat at the hands of Treviso on Friday night is simply unthinkable.
Ulster must bounce back from poor defeats against both Munster and Leinster to keep their Magners League play-off hopes alive before crunch Heineken Cup clashes against Biarritz and Aironi.
Looking ahead to the Treviso showdown, Best said: “We always talked about getting into the New Year and being in a position where we could mount challenges on both fronts, the Magners League and Europe.
“For too many years that I’ve been here that hasn’t been the case. Effectively, in the past, our season has been over at Christmas.
“But now it’s a very, very exciting time to be an Ulster player. Okay, we’re sitting sixth in the Magners League and the table maybe doesn’t look particularly pretty.
“But if we win our game in hand we’re two points behind fourth and still very much in the hunt.”
Indeed, Best is convinced that the fight for play-off places will go right to the wire this season.
“With the Magners League set up the way it is, everyone is beating everyone else and there are points up for grabs,” he added.
“If you can just sit in behind the top four and be in a position to take advantage when somebody makes a slip-up you can get in there.
“I don’t think we’re going to know the top four until the very last game of the season is played. I believe that’s the way it’s going
to be, which is why, if you’re not in the top four now, you’re in with a chance of coming through provided you stay in touch.
“It’s about biding you time and continuing to pick up points, particularly from the games at home.”
The fact that Ulster’s next two games are at home is a huge plus in his opinion.
“We were very disappointed with our last home performance (against Leinster) but by and large our performances at Ravenhill have been good, so we want to get back to that level,” Best stressed.
“To us, playing at home is still something very, very special. The majority of the players in our squad have grown up going to Ravenhill from they were no age, dreaming of playing there right the way up through to a point where now they’re doing that.
“People may say that the professional game has taken the edge off that emotional side of things but that is not true of this Ulster squad.”
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin concurred with the thoughts of Best, who will line out alongside the returning Stephen Ferris and Ian Humphreys.
“It's a huge month for us and we must start with a win on Friday night,” said McLaughlin.
“Then it's Biarritz and Aironi in Europe before we make up slack with that postponed game against the Dragons. Win those games and our season will then really take off.
“The Magners League is tight at the top and a couple of wins will put us back in the running again for Top Four. The players know what is needed. They have trained hard, prepared well and realise that it is in their own hands.”
McLaughlin is expected to start with Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half despite the contribution of Paul Marshall at Thomond Park, while Paddy Wallace will resume his alliance with Nevin Spence in midfield. Adam D'Arcy will reclaim his No 15 jersey from Jamie Smith.
FORWARDS: D Fitzpatrick, T Court, B Young, BJ Botha, J Cronin, R Best, N Brady, A Kyriacou, T Barker, D Tuohy, J Muller, R Caldwell, W Faloon, TJ Anderson, P Wannenburg, S Ferris, C Henry, R Diack
BACKS: A D’Arcy, D McIlwaine, J Smith, T Seymour, S Danielli, A Trimble, L Marshall, N Spence, I Whitten, P Wallace, I Humphreys, N O’Connor, P Marshall, R Pienaar.