Skipper Rory Best determined to leave for Six Nations duty on high
The life of a pro rugby player, and certainly that of the Ulster and Ireland captain, must surely feel a relentless one at times.
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While Rory Best was given a chance to put the feet up somewhat over the festive season - playing just 20 minutes of the inter-pro series - his next break is quite some way down the track.
Starting with today's hugely significant tussle with Racing 92 at Kingspan Stadium (3.15pm kick-off), the big games keep coming for the 36-year-old.
Win, lose or draw today, there will still likely be plenty riding on next Saturday's trip to Leicester Tigers and then, in the blink of an eye, it will be time for a Six Nations title defence.
In recent years that has meant travelling to camp in Carton House knowing that plenty of his national team-mates are riding high off the back of booking their place in the European knock-outs.
Ulster, though, have missed out on the last eight each year since 2014, Best and his Kingspan colleagues signing off from provincial duty with a bitter taste in their mouth.
But winning one of their last two this year, and picking up a bonus point in either, would surely see them back in the sharp end of the competition.
"It would be fantastic to come back after the Six Nations and have that quarter-final to look forward to," he said.
"The last few years Munster and Leinster have had that and we haven't.
"We know we have to go out and grab it. We don't want to be coming in after the Six Nations again with no quarter-final in Europe or knowing that we have to even scramble to make Europe for next season like we did last year."
There is another cautionary tale from last year, of course. Going into round six some 51 weeks ago, still under the stewardship of former Director of Rugby Les Kiss, there was a quarter-final spot on the line ahead of the trip to Wasps only for a curiously flat performance, and a 26-7 defeat, to bring about another pool stage exit.
Best, though, believes they are a better team 12 months on.
"We're just preparing a lot better," he said of life under new head coach Dan McFarland.
"(Then) we were trying to prepare and put some things in place, but I think by and large there's a lot more stability around the place from top to bottom to start with.
"Even last week (in the loss to Leinster), it was a disappointing scoreline but there were some aspects that were quite good for a young team, and last Thursday when you watched them training, they trained with a lot of intensity which we probably wouldn't have got last year.
"Those are the encouraging signs that you have to keep building on. I think that we said way back in September or October that for this group it's about continuing to put steps forward and along the way there will be steps back, but this is a massive opportunity to put a big step forward for us.
"I think this team is a lot less reliant on individual talent and a lot more reliant on playing together as a team and making sure everyone does their bit so that we can succeed.
"We try to play more as a team, with a bit more width, a bit more speed. I think we're better at holding onto the ball than we maybe were in the past.
"I think certainly our collective is our strong point rather than a scattering of world-class players throughout."
That collective will need to show its strength against Racing this afternoon. In Best's eyes, the Parisians - beaten finalists in two of the last three years - are among the three most likely to be lifting the trophy in Newcastle come May.
"When you talk about the European Cup and the form teams and the teams that are favourites to win it, it is hard to look past Racing, Leinster and Saracens and that is what we are going to come up against now," he said.
"That is why European rugby is so exciting. We know they are going to come here with a fully loaded team and they are going to want to come here and make sure they can almost guarantee their home quarter-final with a win here.
"That is why you are getting the best teams in Europe and they are coming fully loaded and that is what you want to do. This is the next step down from international, but games like this get very, very close to the intensity of international rugby."
If Ulster were to win, or even if they weren't but managed to find a way through to the quarters among the best runners-up, Best (above) adds that it would be a considerable achievement for a side so young that two Academy players will start the contest.
"With the position we're in - the home game coming up, the other groups - we have a real possibility to go through, and I think it'll be a sign of how far we've come," he said. "I think the difference is we've looked a bit stronger getting into this position this year.
"Not only in the European games but you look at the Munster and Cardiff games (in the PRO14), there were bits of those games where we've looked pretty good."
Against a side of such talents this afternoon, Best knows pretty good likely won't be enough.
Match Verdict: Ulster
Head coach Dan McFarland will have known that depth was an area Ulster lacked when he took over and he has had to cut his cloth accordingly over Christmas. Today, though, he has selected his full-strength side minus the injured duo of Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy. In the biggest game of the season, in front of the biggest crowd, it just might see Ulster home against opposition who don't need the points just as much.