Ulster will shine in 2017, promises Rory Best
Christmas message to fans ahead of Connacht clash
With some 20 minutes remaining of Ulster's loss to Clermont last Sunday, Rory Best trudged toward the sideline and, in a familiar gesture of frustration, hurled his scrum cap to the ground.
As his replacement Rob Herring entered the fray, the province trailed 28-7 in the Auvergne and, while a late resurgence saw faint hope ever so briefly flicker, at that stage the gig seemed very much up for Les Kiss's men.
While there remains a chance of making the Champions Cup quarter-finals via a best runner-up spot, as Best hurled his head gear to the turf at speed, he looked like a man who accepted the province had just saw their chances of making an impact in Europe take a considerable hit.
It's been an all-too-familiar feeling for the Irish skipper who just last month became the first Ulsterman to reach 100 Test caps.
Back in 2005/06, as a 23-year-old not long out of Newcastle University, the Poyntzpass man was in his second senior season, starting in the front-row after a battle with Nigel Brady.
When Mark McCall's men beat Ospreys on the last day of the season to clinch the Celtic League title, Best was making just his 26th start.
You wonder what he'd have thought back then had he known that, some 165 outings later, he'd still be waiting for his next piece of provincial silverware.
There have been plenty of near-misses in recent years of course, leading to accusations of a mental fragility when it comes to the biggest of games.
And while such a charge can hardly be levelled at Best - not with all he has achieved in a green jersey - he admitted that he can sense the growing frustration as the wait for others to learn what it takes to win at the highest level continues.
"It's the same 15 guys," he said of the team that beat, and then were comfortably beaten, by Clermont just eight days apart.
"What's the difference at home than away? That is a mental thing. I think that can be very frustrating.
"If you look at Ireland and the group we have at the minute, it came about from a very, very tough start to the season in 2016.
"If you look at the mistakes that some of the boys made early on, they were silly errors but when you're not used to that level, it's just a mistake.
"You look at those players then to now, there's no comparison because they've learned.
"You look at someone like Jacko (Paddy Jackson).
"The way he trains and prepares now, and the way he expects people around him to prepare and train, to how it was 12 months, 24 months ago, it's night and day.
"That's something we need. We need to perform at the top level to get guys to see that the more you step up the less there is a margin for error.
"When they first come in, they're nervous and they're going to make mistakes because they're nervous.
"Shouting at them doesn't necessarily have the response you want but you need them to catch on quick.
"You don't want to be too soft that they drift along but once they get enough time in there, they either catch up quick or they get out. That's what we're trying to drill here.
"It's frustrating at times but it's a work in progress.
"I see people getting frustrated and I see supporters getting frustrated, but I see a lot more positives about where we're going than maybe you see if you're just judging things solely on the pitch on a Friday and Saturday.
"Look, I feel we're going the right way, I do feel we've a long way to go, it does unfortunately take small steps."
The next of which comes tonight when Connacht visit Kingspan Stadium and, in the opinion of Best, this is the greatest side the Galway men have ever brought north.
"It has to be," he said simply.
"This is the first Connacht team to come up here as champions, so from that regard it has to be.
"Then you see the way they're playing; 13 points after four games in the restructured European Cup is no mean feat.
"This is a very good outfit, the way they played last year, and in the final especially.
"We saw how good Leinster were in the semis, and for Connacht to dominate the final - it's been a long time since there was such a one-sided final.
"They're in a similar position to us in that they need to get up the table.
"Their target, like ours, is to get into the top four. Once you get in there, you can look further ahead but, as it is, both of us aren't there and expect to be there.
"It's going to be a very important battle."
And with such stakes, was it odd to be surrounded by Connacht men in an Ireland get-together as recently as Monday?
"No, I just said Ultan Dillane has played a lot of games recently, he should maybe take the week off," Best concluded with a laugh.