Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's Rory Best is eager to taste winning feeling again

 

By Jonathan Bradley

By For all Rory Best's 199 Ulster caps, the last seven have been among the most, as the man himself diplomatically puts it, "mildly frustrating".

Against Leinster at Kingspan Stadium (6.30pm kick-off) this evening, the hooker will become just the fourth man to reach a double century of appearances for the northern province, following Roger Wilson, Andrew Trimble and hot on the heels of Robbie Diack who achieved the feat from the bench against La Rochelle last week.

That the 35-year-old plays such an attritional position, and of course has more than a century of Ireland caps to his name, makes his mark all the more impressive but Best is even keener than usual to mark the occasion with a win.

Thanks to injuries, internationals and British and Irish Lions participation, it's been more than 10 months since Best last experienced that winning feeling in an Ulster jersey, a run that dates all the way back to December 23, 2016.

"It was a while ago," admitted Best with a chuckle. "It would be nice to be back in an Ulster shirt and back winning.

"Hopefully it hasn't had anything to do with me and it's just the way we tailed off last season. It's mildly frustrating. Obviously the way we tailed off last season was disappointing but it was last season.

"But to play 200 times for this province, you'd never dream of that.

"You dream of playing for them maybe, but 200 caps, whenever you get away from it and reflect, you'll be proud of that."

Before their European exertions with Wasps and La Rochelle, Ulster had won five of six in the league, their only blemish coming away to Zebre, for a points tally identical to that of this evening's visitors.

With Best making his first Ulster appearance of the season off the bench in La Rochelle last week, the province's most decorated squad member insists he just wants to fit into what was a winning team.

Indeed, despite being renamed captain over the summer, it is Best's protege Iain Henderson who will continue to skipper the side tonight in order to give him more experience wearing the proverbial armband.

"I think for me personally, it's preparing well to fit into a team that's going well and trying to do my part," he added.

"When you look at this first part of the season, that first PRO14 run, five out of six is very good and we would have taken it.

"Obviously we didn't expect to lose the one we did, but if we can finish off this section strong into the Autumn internationals, you can see that we've taken a lot of forward steps and that's the main thing."

Such an idea will assuredly be put to the test this evening when a Leinster side who have already saw off Munster, Montpellier and Glasgow this month come to town.

When Best next takes the field, he is likely to be facing South Africa at the Aviva Stadium alongside many of the same men who will be opposition tonight and it is clear the respect he has for the visitors from down the M1.

"They obviously have some very good players. A lot of those individuals have come through the Leinster systems too, so they know how special it is to play for their province.

"You have to be up for it. We always talk about these interpros and how big they are, especially at the minute.

"There's none bigger than Leinster because they are the top province over the last, I was going to say two or three years, but it's probably more like six or seven now with the way their run has been. It's going to be a big challenge for us but it gets you going.

"We've been reasonably well looked after in the early part of the week and a lot will be about the mental side of the game and making sure that we, to use a bit of a cliche, hit the ground running."

Without first choice props Kyle McCall and Wiehahn Herbst either side of him due to injury, Best likely has spent more time scrummaging with Leinster's front-row than his own, having played so frequently with Jack McGrath (left) and Tadhg Furlong since the latter became a stalwart for Ireland.

Best said: "Tadhg has really reinvented what Irish rugby fans expect from a tight-head prop. He doesn't scrum and then hide around the place and hope to not get found out. He has shown that, regardless of size, if you work hard and you're good on your feet, you can be a good defender and one of the best carriers in the team.

"Having seen him come in as a bit of a surprise, he's worked hard, he's developed as a rugby player and it's great to see that rewarded."

His national captain might just encourage him to take it easy this week, though. Bigger battles ahead and all that.

Bradley's Verdict

We rarely see full strength sides in these interpros but Les Kiss has really had his hand forced here. Losing both starting props to injury is bad enough but heavily relying upon his fourth and fifth choice scrum-halves for a game that could have big implications on the final table? Ulster look too undermanned for this one.

Belfast Telegraph

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