Heineken Cup: Ulster skipper Best in zone to make mark in Europe
With 54 Ireland caps and 117 Ulster appearances under his belt, hooker Rory Best is a highly responsible individual not given to making fanciful forecasts.
So when a player as experienced and canny as he is talks in terms of his province taking a maximum 10 points from their two Heineken Cup Pool 4 meetings with Aironi — and leading the group going into 2012 as a result — one’s ears prick up in response.
The fact that he also talks in terms of qualification for the quarter-finals adds to the intrigue.
Best believes two big wins against Aironi can be achieved by this Ulster side. If he is correct, that would leave them right in hunt for a place in the quarter-finals for the second year in a row.
“Whenever the draw comes out and you see Clermont, Leicester and Aironi then in your own head you navigate the group,” he says.
“You think, ‘Right, Clermont first — have to win that. Then we go to Welford Road. Difficult. If we get a point there, brilliant. If not, it’s not the end of the world’.
“The problem is that because we performed so well against Clermont, everyone’s expectations went up. Then when we didn’t get the point people went, ‘Oh, pool over’.
“But it’s not. The way I say this pool is that we, Clermont and Leicester will win at home, so then it comes down to what you get on the road and against Aironi.
“By not getting a point at Leicester we’re going to have to get 10 against Aironi — plus something in Clermont.
“Based on history I feel 19 points will have you there or thereabouts. Twenty will definitely get you through,” he reckons.
“Basically we have to get 10 points from these next two games. Nine would not necessarily make it impossible, but it would leave you having to win at Clermont.
“But hopefully, by Christmas, we’ll be top of that group with 14 points,” he adds.
“Hopefully we go into the final game at Clermont on top of the table or close to it. Then it’s a shoot-out between us. Fair enough, that would be hard. But not impossible. You’re not going to Fort Knox and trying to steal money. It would be 15 against 15 in a rugby match.”
Best feels the break between the Heineken Cup’s first two fixtures and rounds three and four is as necessary as it is welcome.
“If you were going for three European matches one after the other that would be very, very tough,” he says.
“These games are exceptionally intense, though you don’t want to do one and then a break, another one and then another break; you couldn’t get any sort of flow to it if you were doing that.
“But two in a row is quite good because it gives you a bit of a break after those big games. That’s where Ulster and the IRFU have been very good to the likes of me and Stephen (Ferris). The enforced rest takes the decision out of our hands.
“Obviously it’s not ideal for Ulster that we miss a Pro12 match but hopefully it means that when the really big games come towards the end of this pool — and hopefully a quarter-final — we’ll be fresher as a result of the way things have been handled.”
Best’s form during and since the World Cup has been outstanding. He has never played better.
“I’ve been happy with my game for the past while. Even in the summer in those (Irish) warm-up games I thought I was going alright and playing my way into it quite well.
“When the set-piece is going well for you it gives you a wee bit more freedom to get about.
“I’ve been delighted to continue my World Cup form since I got home,” he says. “But a run of three, four, five, six good games will mean nothing if I don’t keep it going and follow it through.”
His line-out throwing has been almost exemplary, albeit that Friday night’s wet, windy conditions at Ravenhill did him few favours.
“It’s something I’ve worked very hard on,” he explains. “I’ve always worked hard on it but ever since the neck operation (in the summer of 2009) I have done more.
“So much of the left side of me deteriorated as a result of that operation — the muscle wastage was unbelievable — that I really struggled to get speed. So I started forcing it, which affected my accuracy.
“At the tail end of last season I started doing some work with Allen Clarke. We continued that into the off-season. Basically I asked him what we could do to fix things. We talked through a lot of things and tried a few of them. Some worked, others didn’t.”
Best drastically upped the number of throws he did each day, increasing it from 15 to 20 balls to 70, 80 and sometimes even 90.
Moving to a farm in Gilford with wife Jodie and son Ben has helped enormously in that he has a shed in which he can work on his throwing at times that suit him.
“I’m not wasting time drying balls, for example, so I can really rattle through it. I can probably throw 70 balls in 40-45 minutes, no problem,” he reveals.
To great effect, as Ulster hope to see underlined against Aironi.