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Rory Best is a very 'special person' in Ulster and Irish Rugby, says Jared Payne

Ulster v Cardiff Blues, Guinness PRO14 Championship, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm

Old pals: Rory Best and Jared Payne in action during the 2015 World Cup
Old pals: Rory Best and Jared Payne in action during the 2015 World Cup
Battering ram: Ex-Ulster ace Nick Williams will be back in Belfast

By Michael Sadlier

Rory Best. He's gone and yet it's difficult to fully process this knowledge.

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Though another World Cup has turned to ashes, it just seems that he'll surely be back soon and preparing to pick up an Ulster shirt again.

Except that the 37-year-old won't be wearing the No.2 shirt again when the province begin to ramp up for Europe.

His playing career ceased in the carnage visited upon Ireland in Tokyo on Saturday, and though his last game for Ulster was last May's Guinness PRO14 semi-final tanking at Glasgow, he's passed under the war memorial clock for so long that the squad can be forgiven for expecting him to turn up.

Ulster defence coach and former provincial and Ireland team-mate Jared Payne certainly reckons he'll still show and with that familiar half-grin throws out a line or two about Best.

"He likes the free feeds," said Payne. "I'm sure he'll rock up for a free lunch here and there."

Getting rather more serious about the subject matter of his former work colleague, Payne offered his own tribute as Best begins life as an ex-player.

"Rory, everyone has said it all," he said. "The type of leader, the type of character, the way he fronted up was pretty awesome and such a special person with both Ulster and Ireland.

"I've enjoyed my time with him and all have been good reflections on him (as a person)."

And Joe Schmidt too, the coach under whom Payne won 20 Ireland caps before being forced to retire in 2018 due to recurring headaches, also gets a mention as both the former Ireland coach and captain's departures were less than pleasing after so much high achievement.

"Joe (Schmidt), again, what he's done with the Irish camp, the way he's turned rugby round," he said.

"It's disappointing for them both (Schmidt and Best) to go out like that.

"Sport's not the nicest thing at times," he added with insider knowledge after never being able to play again after 2017's Lions tour to the land of his birth.

"Unfortunately they didn't get the kind of send-off they deserved but I think they can hold their heads high."

With that job done, it's time to address Friday evening and round four of the PRO14 when Ulster host Cardiff Blues, with the Welsh having managed just one win in Conference B against Ulster's pair of victories in A.

While it seems unlikely that either Ireland World Cup squad members Rob Herring or Jordi Murphy will be involved, Payne isn't for enlightening anyone on this matter, instead preferring to talk about the Blues.

With Ulster coming off their bonus-point win at the Southern Kings, which took some of the bad look off the thumping they shipped the week before against the Cheetahs, Payne sounds reasonably confident that the next two games - both at home - can set Ulster on a steadier course.

Citing the influence of former Ulster favourite, and team-mate, Nick Williams as still offering a potent threat, Payne lays down a marker for his charges.

"They've got threats across the board, so it's going to be a tough night if we don't front up early and put some real life into the game," he said.

Coughing up nine tries at the Cheetahs, from a total of 12 conceded so far this season, has a particularly ugly look about it for a defence coach, though Payne tries to appear reasonably nonchalant about Bloemfontein.

"We put a bit of pressure on the boys to improve and they did," he said. "Our discipline was disappointing at the Kings so that was annoying but I think there was a bounce back."

A case of must do better.

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