Belfast Telegraph

Rory Best is driven by desire to recapture Ulster Rugby's glory days

By Jonathan Bradley

As Rory Best thinks back to the May evening in 2006 when Ulster last lifted silverware, he is struck by just how few of his team-mates from that triumph are still around.

When David Humphreys launched a last-minute drop goal against the Ospreys to seal the Celtic League almost 10 years ago, only four of Ulster's current number were part of the ensuing celebrations.

While retirement has only recently called for the likes of Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris - and Bryn Cunningham, Kieran Campbell, Nigel Brady and James Topping are still involved with the organisation in varying capacities - only Best, Andrew Trimble, Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe are still part of the playing squad.

Remembering that day, the current captain would never have believed Ulster would still be waiting for their next trophy.

"It's been a long time," he sighed. "There's not many of us left that were playing that night in Swansea, just the four of us now.

"It's been too long with the quality that we have but we've been lacking something.

"For this season, and the tail end, it's important that we win each game but also address what it has been that's stopped us crossing the line.

"With Les (Kiss), there's a big emphasis on the mental side of things. He's trying to address it and put his own take on how he perceived us from the outside."

Ulster face second-from-bottom Zebre in Parma this afternoon (4pm kick-off), knowing that any unexpected slip-up will all but ensure their trophy drought stretches into next season.

Having already experienced some heartache this year - they missed out on the knock-outs in the Champions Cup despite winning four pool games - Best has little interest in enduring any more.

"We saw this year in the Champions Cup that the margins are fine," he recalled.

"A bad 40 minutes away, or a bad last 20 at home, can be the difference.

"It meant in the end that we were sat watching the quarter-finals last week instead of playing in them.

"We don't want to be watching other teams play come the middle of May.

"We need to make sure we're there and the way to do that is the first minute of the Zebre game."

Ulster will be expected to win and win well while, with the two teams directly above them squaring off, a five-pointer could go a long way to restoring their place in the top four ahead of concluding rounds against Leinster and Ospreys.

Best, however, is not looking any further than this afternoon.

"We talked before the Connacht game that it was knock-out rugby for us and that's still the case," he affirmed.

"For us, it's all about Zebre. We have to make sure that we're prepared for it, especially over there.

"They'll always pick up a scalp at home. It was the Dragons last year, and we have to make sure that we're not that team."

While Best has played only once for his province since the Six Nations - a try-scoring outing against Connacht two weeks ago - his mindset will switch quickly back to Ireland this evening with a one-day training camp to be held tomorrow.

Having led the side throughout a Six Nations campaign that saw their title surrendered but ended with back-to-back victories over Italy and Scotland, Best had said in the immediate aftermath that he would see how his body held up before thinking of the three-Test tour to South Africa this summer.

With the Poyntzpass farmer showing little sign of letting up, he is already looking forward to linking up again with Joe Schmidt.

"It's good to be back in. It doesn't seem that long ago that we broke up but I think it'll be nice to get the lay of the land for the summer," he said.

"Whenever you get sent those spreadsheets saying we're going to travel here or play here, here and here, it really gives you a bit of excitement to push on and perform well enough to be in the selectors' minds for the tour."

Reflecting on his captaincy and the campaign just gone, he speaks of the honour he felt following on from the retired Paul O'Connell but admits he has found February's defeat to France especially hard to shake.

"I suppose the big disappointment was the game in Paris," he admitted.

"In hindsight with some of their performances since, you just see how obvious it is that they were there for the taking.

"We didn't play anywhere near well enough to win. Against Wales and England, without winning, there were plenty of positives but with things to work on.

"The France game, we just left with too many ifs and buts.

"The ones where in your heart of hearts you know you weren't close, they're the ones that stay with you."

The thought of making amends in South Africa, where Ireland have never won, has him hoping that Schmidt again calls on him to lead the side against the Springboks.

"I really hope so," he replied when asked if he thinks his tenure as skipper will continue.

"We'll go down into this camp and talk to Joe about what's happening going forward.

"It would be great to have the opportunity to captain the team to South Africa with a strong squad only getting stronger with injured players coming back.

"I feel we've a really good opportunity to go over there and do something no other Irish team has ever done and that's win a game in South Africa.

"I've a really good feeling about how we can perform out there and to captain that side would be a massive honour."

With his mind wandering back closer to home, he added: "It's a bit like Ulster.

"The guys coming back in, the likes of Tommy (Bowe) and Hendy (Iain Henderson) makes you think we can kick on."

No titles will be won today but Ulster's hopes of one can certainly go up in smoke. Best, however, seems determined to end the wait.

Rory Best was speaking after opening the Orthoderm Clinic in Hillsborough, County Down. It is equipped with outpatient assessment rooms, local anaesthetic operating theatre, physiotherapy and full diagnostic imaging including MRI, ultrasound scanning and X-rays. Day surgery such as skin surgery, hand surgery, vasectomy, varicose vein removal and pain relieving injections are available.

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