Ulster rugby's absent friends but there’s no time for tears
While Ulster, under Brian McLaughlin, have made a magnificent start to 2009/10 — three matches, three wins, 97 points scored, a mere 15 conceded, 14 tries for and only two against — fate dealt them a cruel blow in robbing them of their inspirational captain, Rory Best, before a ball had been kicked.
Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning hooker is out for the season, of course. Currently he is recovering from neck surgery and although the word from inside the inner circle is encouraging, the bottom line is that Ulster must do without their skipper and most experienced player for the foreseeable future.
Stephen Ferris is another who is sidelined at this stage, though in his case that is down to restrictions imposed on those who participated in the British and Irish Lions summer tour of South Africa.
As per the rules, the back row star will not return to the competitive stage until Round 4 of the Magners League — against Connacht in Galway on Friday, September 25.
He misses out this weekend against Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys on September 12 and Edinburgh — in what will be Ulster’s first home game of the 18-match series — on Friday, September 18.
Ulster, to their credit, are not dwelling on Best’s absence. Nor — to his credit, too — is he.
Instead the captain, who is continuing in that role, is urging others to step up, rise to the challenge and, by so-doing, strengthen their claims for recognition further up the ladder.
With regard to his own situation he says: “The Edinburgh game and the big occasion that will be with the opening of the new stand — and the European Cup matches when those come round — will be tough.
“But a good thing about not playing, I suppose, is that I’ll be in the middle and able to offer a bit of support.
“We’re still a young enough squad that hopefully some of them will respond to me having a word with them!” he smiles.
It says much for his standing that, even though he is sidelined, Best remains as captain, albeit of the non-playing variety.
And it is indicative of his status among the players that each of the two to have deputised in his absence — Chris Henry and Isaac Boss — has said that the pride in being awarded the captaincy is something they would willingly have foregone rather than have it thrust upon them in such unfortunate circumstances for their colleague and friend.
Meanwhile the advice of the admirably non-self-pitying Best, to those who will wear the white jersey as he watches, is to get on with doing themselves justice, their personal cause a favour and their Province proud.
“A top four place is a realistic goal,” he reckons. “And the new format offers a greater incentive than before because sides know that by finishing fourth they qualify for the knock-stages. That’s going to be a real motivation.”