Heineken Cup: Ulster must seize the day, says Best
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin stands on the cusp of history.
No coach since Harry Williams — en route to the trophy in 1999 — has led Ulster into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.
But this time McLaughlin’s players have created a position which leaves them in charge of their own destiny.
By this stage in previous campaigns they have been dependent on others doing them favours and results elsewhere going their way.
Last season they discovered just how vulnerable that left them.
The pain of their post-Bath experience just over 12 months ago is still there. It continues to hurt; they have not forgotten.
If McLaughlin is to boldly go where Alan Solomons, Mark McCall and Matt Williams in turn failed to venture, his team must see off Biarritz Olympique on Saturday afternoon.
To do that, they must buck what has been their convention, break free of the stranglehold of history, kick off the managles of past defeats and wrestle clear of the disappointments to have dogged them each year since they became the first Irish winners of European club rugby’s premier prize.
In the interim Ulster have enjoyed a 60 per cent Ravenhill success rate against French sides. They have beaten — and lost to — Biarritz in Belfast.
These particular French guests will not relish the prospect of a January trip to Ravenhill.
They know that if Ulster get up to a head of steam and in particular, bring the crowd with them, it can be a cauldron.
And already they have shown that they are susceptible on the road, witness their totally unexpected defeat by little-fancied Aironi on December 11, that being the result which threw Ulster an improbable lifeline.
This year, too, in the French domestic league, they have lost on the road to Montpellier and Toulon, results which underline their frailty away from Parcs des Sports Aguiléra.
Away days have long been viewed as being Ulster’s Achilles heel too, but this term they have gone some way towards changing that, witness a hat-trick of on-the-road Magners League victories over Aironi, Cardiff and Treviso plus a Heineken Cup win over Aviva Premiership side, Bath, at The Rec.
This is the second season in a row that they have won against those particular opponents on English soil and it is as a result of their December home and away double over the West Country outfit that Ulster now stand poised to make the next step and take their place as one of Europe’s top eight clubs.
So while Ulster have managed to get a monkey off their backs, Biarritz continue to be haunted by their tendency to crash when forced to line-out away from their own comfort zone.
In addition they are likely to be without several highly influential members of their big, hard pack. French international prop Fabien Barcella is a long-term absentee who definitely will not play.
Manuel Carizza, the Argentine lock who scored against Ulster in Biarritz back in October, is highly unlikely to be fit, ditto Campbell Johnstone, their Kiwi tighthead.
Ulster skipper Rory Best sought to play down the importance of the occasion, describing it as “just another game in the season.”
He will be hard-pressed to get the 12,000 who are expected to fill Ravenhill to capacity on Saturday afternoon that it is nothing more than that, however.
Or himself, come to that, for as he admitted yesterday afternoon when the Ulster squad was announced: “It just happens to be against last year’s European Cup runners-up.
“I suppose it’s a crucial game in our group,” he conceded.
“A big lesson we learned from last year — and it’s something that being in and around Irish camps that the other boys say — is that you need to have your fate in your own hands going into the last round of group games.
“We have a great opportunity to do that this weekend, so from an Ulster rugby — and I suppose a personal point of view having been around for so long in Ulster teams and never having played in European Cup quarter-finals — it’s important for us as a squad that we take this opportunity.”
He is no stranger to big matches, of course and with so many big occasions behind him it was interesting to hear how he viewed this one in terms of its importance.
“Obviously there’s quite a lot at stake, but it has to be treated as just another group game,” Best stressed. “We still have a chance if we don’t win, but it would be very, very slim and we’re not thinking like that.
“It has to be up there, but if you compare it to Grand Slam deciders or even the game in the Magners League in Swansea where we knew if we went there and won we’d win the competition, if we win on Saturday we won’t have won anything except a game,” he said.
Biarritz are unlikely to agree. Nor will the thousands who pack Ravenhill.
For them, this is huge.