Belfast Telegraph

We can't lose grip of European bid, says skipper Best

By Jonathan Bradley

Buoyed by last week's return to winning ways, Ulster captain Rory Best is braced for the defining two weeks of his side's Champions Cup campaign as Toulouse visit the Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.45pm kick-off).

A double-header that also sees the province take on this evening's opponents at the Stade Ernest Wallon next weekend, Les Kiss' men - having already lost at home in the competition to Saracens - need a victory if a precarious situation is not to become a lost cause.

Preparations have been far from ideal - even if last Friday's victory over Edinburgh halted a two-game losing run - after the last seven days saw Iain Henderson, Darren Cave, Dan Tuohy and Peter Nelson join Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Stuart Olding on the sidelines.

With their campaign needing the boost of victory, Best admits that Ulster could have easier assignments than a visit from the four-time European champions.

"When you think about European rugby historically, Toulouse are the top team," said the man who is restored to the starting line-up having been rested last weekend.

"When you look at their performances last year they were a bit patchy in the league and that carried into Europe but you look at them this year and they're third in the Top 14 and going very well. You look at their team and there's quality throughout.

"When you look at the quality, they can play any style of rugby they want."

With Best's ability to influence the breakdown akin to that of a flanker, he has targeted Toulouse's loose forward trio as the primary hindrance to his side's ambitions.

"Our experience of playing France, people like (Louis) Picamoles and (Imanol) Harinordoquy will get go-forward ball, they will offload.

"They're very, very good players. Everyone talks about the flair of the backs but a lot revolves around the back-row. When we have the ball we need to make sure we're good because (Thierry) Dusautoir is one of the best sevens over the ball if you're not quick and you don't get rid of him early."

Ulster would have liked to counter their opponents' back-row presence with Henderson but their dynamic flanker's season looks to be over after a significant hamstring tear.

While in past seasons Ulster have been able to wrap their stars in cotton wool at this time of year to ensure their readiness for Europe, the introduction of Champions Cup qualification to the PRO12 last year - especially with the province having already racked up four league losses - has resulted in a changing dynamic.

For Best, the decreased opportunities to rest starters - even with an increased chance of injury - remains a plus.

"You look at injuries and go 'why did we risk him there?' but ultimately you have to play and unfortunately you're going to get injured," he said. "Touch wood it's not this week or next and you'll always think, 'he had an opportunity not to play there' but you look at Ireland at the World Cup, you can't live your life worrying about what you could have done.

"The qualification has certainly made the PRO12 more competitive but in the past we probably tried to get a game in before so from that side of things those boys would have been playing anyway, they just might not have been going three or four in a row.

"It's something that we've talked about, making the middle of the PRO12 more competitive, so we can't really complain that we're getting injuries."

While the loss of key men certainly puts the hosts at a disadvantage, Best has called on those who have been handed starts in their place to step up.

"One door closes and another one opens," the 33-year-old reflected. "You look back at all of us, maybe with the exception of Ruan (Pienaar), we've come in through someone else's injury or someone else's bad form.

"Ultimately it will give someone else a chance."

Players will be handed those chances in what is set to be a defining segment of Ulster's season.

With five European games, as well as the festive inter-pros against Connacht and Munster, to come before the end of January, Ulster will know more about the direction of their season by the end of next month.

"I think we're in for a very tough seven weeks, no doubt about it," added Best.

"We're not stupid, ultimately it's a result driven business, but we sometimes need to look at the bigger picture in that we have to produce performances.

"If we produce the performances then the results will come.

"Saying that, you'd take 3-0 wins the whole seven weeks. At the same time we have to make sure we balance everything over these weeks and make sure our performances are getting better because ultimately we want to get better week on week.

"You can talk about how things are going the right way, how training is good, how boys are doing more work than they've ever done but it can just all be words if you're not producing results at the weekend.

"We want to be peaking at the end of the season. We don't want to be like Ulster teams of the past who have peaked at Christmas and then been hanging on.

"We have to be better over these next two weeks because, ultimately, Europe hangs a bit in the balance for us."

Lose tonight and those scales will tip decidedly in their opponents' favour.

Belfast Telegraph


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