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Best cannot wait to get back into heat of battle for Ulster

 

By Adam McKendry

Rory Best winced slightly when asked how many pre-seasons he's now faced with Ulster.

"Fifteen," he replied. "I don't like to talk about it!

"It was my wife who asked me how many it was. I was trying to work it out. They've become a little bit less enjoyable!"

And yet he's back, the man who turns 36 in a couple of weeks togging out yet again in preparation for another nine-month slog with his province.

Although these days he may not be playing as large a part in July - he and his Ireland team-mates only came into camp this week - it's a welcome sight that he's back in full training.

Having missed Ireland's tour to Australia with a hamstring injury, doubts began to creep in over whether that would impact his return in Belfast, however Best himself was quick to allay any fears.

"It was (frustrating to miss the tour)," the Banbridge man admitted.

"But Ireland got me to train right up until the last Test and I got a lot of good work done. I've probably never finished the season feeling in better shape.

"Monday to Friday was really good, I'd no pressure on. I got to train early, finish early. Then Saturday mornings were very frustrating watching.

"I definitely could have played in the third Test, maybe the second, but part of the longer term view is to allow me to come back in pre-season fully able to do everything.

"To get a full pre-season, that's probably something that hasn't happened in a long time. Fitness-wise I'm starting from scratch again, but the body is ready to go."

And so, with Ireland parked until their autumn series, Best made his return to the Ulster training paddock this week along with the other internationals.

"This is the first week where we've really had everyone. It's good the way it's fallen, with Ireland camps coming up and bits and pieces and players back, it's worked out perfectly," said Best.

"We've had a really good week, a good balance between working hard on the pitch and switching off and enjoying each other's company and building.

"We did a combination of things. We did hovercrafting, buggies, laser tag - there was a lot of cheating going on. Andy Warwick and Chris Henry especially were cheating a lot!"

The upcoming campaign will be a different prospect for Ulster given the turnover of players and the change in the age profile that's occurred over the summer.

Gone are the experienced heads of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Robbie Diack to be replaced by a raft of Academy graduates and a smattering of new signings.

After a positive finish to a dreadful season last year, in which they were unbeaten in their last six games, Best is hoping Ulster can carry that form over, while also putting the season as a whole behind them.

"It's a bit of a clean slate, but there are a lot of the same players around," he said.

"The one thing we said at the end of last season was regardless of results, we've got to show we prepare for a game, and if we lose by a refereeing decision or a bounce of a ball, we fought tooth and nail, so we'll take that.

"For the last six games, five wins and a draw against fairly decent opposition, we were really happy with that.

"You need to take that in because you need the boys to realise that they get reward for the effort they put in during the week. It isn't just a case of we'll pitch up on Friday night and we'll be grand. It needs work."

And after the all-dominating form of cross-border rivals Leinster last season, Best admits that jealousy will play a part this season when it comes to wanting to win a trophy.

This season conceivably may be Best's last in an Ulster jersey given his contract expires after the World Cup, and thus far he hasn't had the silverware to reflect his unfailing dedication to his home province.

"You want a piece of that," added Best. "International success is brilliant, but there is always something special - especially in a club you've spent 14 years playing for - to achieve success against the odds would be really, really special.

"When you pull a jersey on, we want to do better than last season. You have to set the ceiling somewhere, you're always better to set it somewhere achievable. But it's very tough to achieve it."

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