Rory Best hungry to land title with Ulster
Published 20/03/2014 | 14:20
Rory Best is on a hat-trick. A member of the 2013 Lions who returned from Australia in July as series winners, the Ulster hooker was a key player in Ireland's just-finished Six Nations triumph, too.
Now his sights are set on ending Ulster's eight-year trophy famine. His native province is very much in the hunt for the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect PRO12 and while either would do, he would prefer to cap a roller-coaster 12 months by winning both.
"It hasn't been a bad year," Best said, which as understatements go is right up there.
"Obviously there have been a few lows along the way, but it's a team sport which means that when you get a low you can spread it out amongst every one.
"But there's nothing quite like the highs when you win things and when things go your way.
"The atmosphere in that (Ireland) dressing room after the game on Saturday night was incredible. We'd given everything and we'd got the reward for doing that.
"To finally lift a trophy having been involved in every game is very, very special. I haven't lifted many bits of silverware in my life.
"I've lifted more in the past six or eight months, whatever it is, than in my entire career up to that point so it has been a fairly good year from that point of view."
But while he can list successes with Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, there is a gap in his collection. And in Best's heart of hearts, he knows that will not be filled until Ulster, too, have a trophy and medals to show for their endeavours.
There was discernible hunger and the urgency in his voice when he said: "It would be nice if we could get another one or two this season. It's going to be a phenomenal ask, but I think the big thing from our point of view is that until you win something you don't know just how good that feels.
"Now that some of us have had a taste of that we want more of it."
Best was a member of the Ulster side which won the then-Celtic League in 2006, since when they have not managed to land a trophy. It was easier back then, he reckons.
"There aren't many people left from that," he mused. "It was a different time and it wasn't as tough to win things then as it is now.
"The fact that Ulster's last trophy was such a long time ago really brings it home and makes you realise just how hard it is to win silverware nowadays."
If the past has taught him anything it is that rewards do not come cheaply.
They go to those whose desire to succeed has been underwritten by their willingness to give everything in pursuit of the prize.
"Winning really does come down to the last seconds, literally. You saw that on Saturday in Paris," said Best, who clocked up his 150th appearance for Ulster on January 18 at Welford Road where they beat the defending Aviva Premiership champions, Leicester Tigers, by a 22-19 margin, thereby making it a perfect six out of six pool-stage record.
Driven to attain the goal of a home quarter-final against Saracens, that night saw Ulster fight like their lives depended on it. No-one fought harder than the most capped hooker in the history of Irish rugby.
"I think it comes down to how deep you're willing to dig to make sure that you get yourself across the line. Maybe that's something, from an Ulster point of view, we haven't been aware of or fully appreciated," Best said.
And then, in a very honest follow-through, he added: "Maybe we thought we were putting our bodies on the line, or getting across the line, when actually we weren't.
"But this season I have noticed a big difference in us. In the Montpellier and Leicester games we really went to another level.
"Then it really was a case of people who had given everything being trailed off the pitch exhausted. I think that's something that maybe in the past wasn't always the case.
"When you look back to that PRO12 final last year, did we really give ourselves to the point of exhaustion to make sure we won that game? Maybe. But maybe not."
The feel of silverware in July and then on Saturday past has sharpened Best's appetite and what it will take in order to satisfy it. Tellingly, he isn't alone in this.
"But now we've got a bit more of a taste for it," he continued. "The likes of Chris (Henry) and Andrew (Trimble) know what it's like to play in five (Six Nations) games. Chris was trailed off in every game in pieces after giving everything and you can see the scars from it.
"Now we've won the Six Nations we have a bit of a feel for what it's going to take to win the European Cup. That's probably going to be harder because whereas it (the Six Nations campaign) is five international games you have to go through nine to win the European Cup.
"So it's going to be a massive challenge and there's no point hiding away from that. It's a massive goal for us and it's a massive goal for me personally to win the European Cup before I eventually retire.
"We've given ourselves a fantastic opportunity to do it and we need to make sure that come two weeks Saturday we play the game and not the occasion. And we need to make sure that we leave absolutely everything on the pitch."
Rory Best was at Belfast's Victoria Square to endorse the new Kingsmill Great White Loaf