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Ulster have nothing to fear, roars fired-up skipper Best

By Michael Sadler

Published 29/04/2016

The wind is whipping across the pitch with such ferocity that the ball keeps getting blown off the tee during Ruan Pienaar's kicking practice while, inside, Rory Best is shivering from the cold after finally escaping a lengthy photo shoot.

But for the sun's presence, it really could be the dead of winter and the lead-up to another mud-spattered arm wrestle of a game rather than it actually being the end of April with the scrap to decide the play-offs now in its critical phase.

Relieved to have left the weather behind, Best - now one of just four squad members still around a decade on from the last time Ulster lifted silverware - quickly warms to confronting what needs to be done tomorrow with yet another of those crunch games with Leinster lying in wait.

The Ireland and Ulster skipper is gearing up for an encounter which tends to see him ending up on the wrong end of the scoreline but Best isn't for dwelling on any of that.

Instead, the 33-year-old is drawing strength from last April's tub-thumping Kingspan victory over the southern province - when Ulster triumphed 26-10 - as well as last November's narrow loss down at the RDS.

"If you look at this time last year, if there was an issue with beating them, or issues with our confidence and belief, then that was the time we would have had it," he said.

"We quickly went 10-0 down and you would have been under the posts and just looking around there would have been blank expressions, whereas there was actually real calm and real composure and a case of 'we move on and get the next play'.

"We then scored 26 unanswered points after that. While we're not planning to try and go 10 points down so quickly this time, we know we can generate points and we can build leads and we can also chase leads back.

"Leinster, of all teams, deserve a lot of respect and we give them that, but we will not give them any more than we give any other opposition that comes here."

Last April, however, the Blues were somewhat vulnerable having had just a five-day turnaround between their Champions Cup semi-final exit against Toulon and their PRO12 season-definer in Belfast.

And last November's 8-3 away defeat to Leo Cullen's side in difficult conditions was also, Best argues, a game which also actually helped Ulster believe more in themselves.

After that encounter, Les Kiss' squad knocked off four straight wins which included the back-to-back European victories over Toulouse and a notable result at Connacht.

"I remember we came in at half-time (at the RDS in November) losing and going 'here's the story, we can either just play this next 40 and get the game over with or we can actually go and play with ambition and not be uptight'.

"I think we did that (even though the score stayed at 8-3) and we took that into the Toulouse games and went on a bit of a run where we played with ambition and played with fast, open rugby which suited us.

"For me, the second-half in that Leinster game probably sparked a lot of our belief and confidence which we certainly took into the tail-end of the year."

So, the argument is made that Ulster are in a pretty good place to take Leinster's scalp again in front of tomorrow's sold-out Kingspan crowd and, crucially, keep control of their own play-off destiny.

Yes, but Best maintains that all this will only unfold if Ulster - without the crucial ball-carrying presence of Cardiff-bound Nick Williams, who has played his last game for the province after picking up a season-ending injury - are hitting their straps against a squad packed with internationals and boasting the league's most efficient defence.

"The thing with Leinster is that if you run a play which you hope will open them up and you don't get it quite right, then 'A: You haven't opened them up and 'B: You're not running that play again'," stated Best, who will face-off against Ireland rivals Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss. "They're so smart that they will pick it up early.

"If you're a fraction out with a play that you could potentially score off then it's seven points you won't get.

"But we also know that the way their attack is set up, they'll really fancy their chances at coming up here and scoring. So we need to make sure that defensively we're really, really strong."

He emphasises that the mental approach to the game has been greatly enhanced by Kiss' presence while, as usual, there will be some mouth-watering match-ups between the sides and particularly so with places to be had on the summer tour to South Africa.

He added: "Les is geared around ensuring we're mentally strong, he knows we've got the skills and a lot of that is making sure you have confidence so when things aren't going perfectly, you have the mental resolve to fight through and get to the good bit."

And a win would be very good indeed.



Guinness PRO12 League:

Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3pm

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