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Rory Best and Darren Cave leave Ulster as heroes, says Louis Ludik

 

An emotional farewell for Rory Best and Darren Cave
An emotional farewell for Rory Best and Darren Cave
Road block: Louis Ludik is halted by Kyle Steyn of Glasgow
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It was no way for an encouraging season to end, nor a fitting fashion for two legends to bow out.

When the dust settles, Dan McFarland and his staff will reflect on a season that exceeded expectations and the establishment, after four years of zig-zagging, of a seemingly settled course for moving forward.

But in the immediate aftermath of Friday night's startling 50-20 PRO14 semi-final defeat to Glasgow - the most points ever conceded in the play-offs and a second largest semi-final defeat - the considerable reality check remains something of a bitter pill to swallow.

After the sunset of the Ulster careers of Darren Cave and Rory Best, Louis Ludik said: "We wanted to celebrate Besty and Cavey's last game and I don't think we did them justice.

"As a team we're really disappointed with the send-off we gave them.

"It's very emotional. It's been a long career for them in an Ulster jersey. They leave the club as heroes. You never know if they'll be back in some other capacity but they've done a great job and left the jersey in a much better place than where it was.

"It's a privilege for me to have shared the field and shared the jersey with them. It's very sad that it's ended this way but hopefully Besty can lift the World Cup before he's finished."

With Best (36) and Cave (32)having played the last of their 450 combined games for the province, it is Ludik who will be the squad's elder statesman next season.

Indeed, the versatile South African figures to be the only player above the age of 30 in the province's squad when the next PRO14 season begins some 19 weeks from now.

The shift towards youth in recent seasons has been striking. Since the end of 2016-17, Ruan Pienaar, Roger Wilson, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry and now Best and Cave have gone out. That group alone counted for more than 1,800 Ulster outings.

This season alone, Ulster have used 10 players who started the year in the Academy and relied heavily upon the likes of Eric O'Sullivan, Mike Lowry and Robert Baloucoune.

It's why Ludik believes there can still be cause for optimism after a year that showed progress, but also highlighted the length there still remains to go in order to end a silverware drought that stretches back 13 years.

"We've had a good year," reflected Ludik. "A lot of people didn't think we'd do that or get to the semi-finals. We played well over the whole season, the way the guys played in a European quarter-final was so good. But we didn't do ourselves justice. Glasgow were brilliant, we just couldn't stop them. Once they got over the advantage line it was really tough.

"As you can imagine there are a lot of emotions but we'll try to think about the year as a whole, not just the semi-final, and what we've achieved. There's been a lot of changes from last year, a lot of guys have grabbed a hold of their chance and Dan has done a really good job. With all the young guys, the future is bright. It's great to be a part of it.

"For me, I've been injured but as a team, the way we are playing, trying to play, play at tempo, put width on the ball, as a player that's the way you want to play. I think a lot of the young guys grabbed onto that and guys are trying to use their talent and bring it out on the field. That's the exciting part as a senior guy, young guys taking ownership and showing what they can do."

While it will be a long wait to see the side in action again, further change is on the horizon.

Recruitment has, at this stage, seemed astute. Working within a very different framework to the one that not so long ago brought multiple World Cup winners to Belfast, Matt Faddes and Sam Carter fill holes in the squad, while, even if it fell into their laps, the arrival of Jack McGrath certainly constitutes a splash, even more so if a move gets him back to his 2017 standards.

Roddy Grant will join Dan McFarland's coaching ticket, replacing Aaron Dundon, and there will be not insignificant upheaval to the support staff too.

The province figure to only be partly depleted by World Cup call-ups when compared to plenty of other sides in the PRO14 while the benefit of a first pre-season under McFarland, who arrived only before the final friendly last year, should also be a benefit.

"I think detail-wise, this year has been unbelievable," said Ludik. "Throughout my whole career, this has been the most detail there has been. The coaches are telling us how they want us to play, the lines they want us to run and even though there is a lot of planning you still have the freedom to play heads up rugby but there's a system within that to make it exciting.

"The detail is impeccable. Hats off to the coaches, they try to have us understanding exactly what they want us to do and how we take that onto the field.

"It shows in the way we played against Leinster (in the Champions Cup quarter-final), I was a spectator in that game but that's exactly the way we wanted to play. It's a great example of what we can do and that makes me very excited."

Friday night did, however, display the need for improvement to match the league's very top sides. Glasgow were irresistible at times in attack while Ulster never secured a foothold in a game they trailed from the third minute onwards.

Again the line-out was an issue, while the lack of ball retention made for a long evening. Evidently far from their best, opposing head coach Dave Rennie believes Ulster are a better side than the 30-point margin inflicted upon them.

"I think Ulster are a better side than the scoreboard would suggest," he said. "We caught them on the hop, and we were clinical with our opportunities. We could score in a blink and then score another one within two blinks - whatever that means.

"I think Ulster's plan was to try and silence the crowd but we managed to score first and built from there.

"We got off to a flier as we often do and put them under pressure with the breeze behind us. We were clinical and turned defence into attack very efficiently.

"I thought it was a pretty good performance - but we'll have to step it up next week."

The Celtic Park final between Glasgow and Leinster will pit the PRO14's best two sides against each other to decide a champion.

"The preparation was ideal for next week," Rennie continued. "The closing stages were a reminder that you need to keep going until the final whistle.

"Although we tired and didn't have the same sense of urgency in the last 10 minutes, I don't want to talk negatively about it because for 70 minutes we were really good."

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