Belfast Telegraph

Ulster must earn winning feeling to keep Euro hopes alive, warns Best

By Michael Sadlier

As usual, Rory Best speaks with eloquence and candour about the issues at hand and doesn't shirk away when a potentially tricky query comes along.

The Ulster and Ireland skipper has a message to get across that tomorrow he and his team-mates will rise to the occasion to add another French side's scalp to the Kingspan collection while also staying on course for potential European qualification.

And yet Best does not appear to be quite firing on all cylinders when it comes to delivering the expected call to arms.

Hardly surprising really after what has been an injury-blighted season for the 35-year-old, allied to the fact that Ulster have not found things easy of late.

He came back into the side last weekend for the first time since the start of December only to experience another RDS bashing from Leinster, and the six-try defeat is still clearly raw which is no way to be with La Rochelle next up tomorrow (kick-off 1pm).

"I think the frustrating thing is that you want to come in as one of the Ireland internationals and as the captain and you want to feel that you make a difference, you want to feel that you lift the place," he said of making it back last weekend from a troublesome ankle infection.

"That was very frustrating for me to come in and then for us to produce probably at times some of our worst rugby."

Fair to say then that Ulster's captain is not just as upbeat as would usually be the case.

In fairness, he has a lot on his plate with the stuttering squad needing instant revival, never mind hardly being match-fit and having to deal with the close proximity of the Six Nations as well as the matter of sorting out his own future beyond this season.

But right now he has to gather himself and his troops to take on Pool One leaders La Rochelle and find the means of putting together one of those special blood-curdling European performances at the Kingspan and emulate Wasps earlier in the campaign by taking the powerful French side down.

"That is what we're focusing on now," said Best, who has only played a total of six games this season - four for Ulster and two with Ireland.

"And, while our season as a whole isn't in the balance on Saturday, our European season is at crunch time now.

"So you lose this and you're really on the back foot and you're asking yourselves to go to Wasps and get a result and hope that other things go your way," he added of a situation Ulster cannot afford to allow to happen regarding potential qualification as a best runner-up.

"It's not where you want to be, and so you keep your destiny in your control as much as you can."

With La Rochelle just two points ahead, tomorrow has to be about Ulster making a huge statement.

A bonus-point win will pretty much ensure that the French side - who swatted Ulster aside 41-17 back in October's round two - top the group, so there is little prospect that the visitors will be coming to Belfast somewhat lacking incentive.

Best certainly knows the form in these situations and now begins to hit his stride.

"For us it's about making sure that we dictate (from the start) and that we don't wait and see how much they get their big carriers into the game," he said.

"We've got to test where they are and we've got to shock them with how tough it's going to be to come to Belfast and win. You're getting to these big games now and you have got to realise every moment matters."

Which brings us to a bit of a sore point with Ulster's captain, namely that he has failed to be on a winning side for his province since December 2016.

His smile at being reminded of this stat is more a grimace really.

"It's been a fairly horrific run for me," he admitted. "But I haven't played that many games.

"At the same time you probably forget what that feeling is like when you walk into that changing room and everyone is absolutely shattered because they've given everything they have to produce one of those special (winning) performances.

"And that's where we need to get back to, it's a feeling we need to get."

Belfast Telegraph

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