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Hunger is driving Ulster's pack on to improved performances, says Best

Scarlets 15 Ulster 30


Rory Best shows off his battle scars after Ulster's win over Scarlets.

Rory Best shows off his battle scars after Ulster's win over Scarlets.

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Rory Best shows off his battle scars after Ulster's win over Scarlets.

These remain early days in the Dan McFarland era at Ulster but after such an impressive and, to be blunt, surprising fortnight in Champions Cup action, the early returns have been promising.

With 10 points from 10 on offer against the Scarlets in the back-to-backs, Ulster have put themselves in with a real chance of a quarter-final spot, whether as one of three best runners-up or, as McFarland stressed was still a possibility, overhauling Racing at the top of Pool Four.

A return to the last eight after an absence that stretches back to 2014 would be a considerable boon to the first-year head coach but, in and of themselves, the past two weeks have offered encouragement for a coach who arrived with a reputation as something of a technical expert when it came to forward play.

For all the praise heaped upon the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and Billy Burns after the one-point win in Llanelli and Friday's 30-15 triumph back in Belfast, they were games won by the pack.

Had Iain Henderson won man-of-the-match in either game, not an eyebrow would have been raised. Young prop Eric O'Sullivan was among his side's top tacklers in both - the side were led in that regard by the tireless Sean Reidy on Friday night - while Marcell Coetzee is finding his best form after two seasons lost to injury.

Kirean Treadwell has perhaps never had a more impactful run in an Ulster jersey and two former Leinstermen, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy, have both got up to speed and contributed well after early injuries.

Skipper Rory Best, even at 36-years-old and with an international understudy in Rob Herring, still makes his side better, his return to the side midway through the win over Cardiff coinciding with the side's maul becoming a potent weapon.

The hooker himself has noted the developing transformation of a pack who in recent seasons have been oft-described as a soft touch.

"We could have stood here last year or the year before and said 'oh no, we don't feel like that' but the reality is that's where we were," said Best of that unwanted reputation.

"Last year, and even the start of this year a bit, we were getting pushed off scrums, we were getting mauled over and conceding tries.

"You felt like you were going to concede a try every time you played in the maul and we've put a stop to that, the boys have stood up and said 'look, you've got to know where to be and you've got to bring an edge to it,' and I think that's part of the reason why it's so enjoyable being part of a pack with Ulster at the minute, because we're not the biggest.

"You see us lining out against teams and we're maybe a few kilos lighter or maybe a few inches shorter, but there's a real hunger and a real want to work as a pack, scrum together, maul together, and we've worked really hard on it.

"Sometimes when you work hard on something you don't always see it or you don't get the rewards for it, but really these Cardiff and Scarlets games you've seen our scrum and our maul and our maul defence come to the fore, and the exciting thing is we feel like we have a lot more to give in that."

Best gives plenty of credit to McFarland and scrum coach Aaron Dundon for turning things around.

"I think I noticed a big difference being away in the autumn," he said.

"Before I went away in the autumn I just couldn't get comfortable in the scrum with whatever was going on, and the boys have worked unbelievably hard. When you go back into Ireland, you sit alongside Tadhg (Furlong) and Cian (Healy) and you think 'alright, this is what it feels like to be really comfortable in the scrum'.

"During that little fallow period and into those couple of games, Aaron Dundon and Dan (McFarland) have worked really hard, Marty Moore has stepped up and taken a big lead and gotten himself match-fit and got himself in a good space.

"From the first scrum when I came back from the internationals, you sort of fitted in and felt like 'this feels more like a scrum that can actually try to attack now'.

"Sometimes you wondered over the last couple of years when the internationals were away if the boys would just put their feet up, but that's not the case now and I think it sums up where we're at and where we want to go."

While there is the small matter of three interpros to come before the European pools conclude - starting with the visit of Munster on Friday night - now that means the last eight.

"It would be very special for this group to go through with what we have been through the last 12-18 months," Best added.

"I think moreover than that, that is the outcome, that is where we want to get.

"I think you can see now, this season, you can see we are enjoying our rugby, we are trying to play with the pace, with the width, I think that every person out there, especially the last two weeks, looked like they wanted to have the ball in their hand and when they do not, they want to go and defend for each other."

Ulster: L Ludik; H Speight, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best (c), M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.

Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 67), K McCall (for O'Sullivan, 65), T O'Toole (for Moore, 67), Matty Rea (for Treadwell, 76), N Timoney (for Coetzee, 67), D Shanahan, J McPhillips (for Burns, 67), D Cave (for Stockdale, 58)

Scarlets: J McNicholl; T Prydie, Jo Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; W Jones, K Owens (c), S Lee; J Ball, D Bulbring; L Rawlins, W Boyde, U Cassiem.

Replacements: R Elias (for Owens, 53), P Price (for W Jones, 67), W Kruger (for Lee, 59), T Price (for Ball, 76), J Helps (for Rawlins, 76), S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Jones (for McNicholl, 52), P Asquith (for Jon Davies, 59)

Referee: L Pearce (ENG).

Belfast Telegraph