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Rory Best: Trophy misery will go on unless Ulster reach rivals' level

By Jonathan Bradley

While the Six Nations didn't quite live up to the Irish expectations set by a history-making November, there is still plenty of hope that the provinces can ensure that this is a season that ends on a high.

Having rebounded from a post-World Cup lull that saw no Irish representation in the Champions Cup last eight a year ago, Leinster and Munster are both preparing for semi-finals next weekend, both one win away from securing a first inter-provincial European final since 2012.

While English giants Saracens and Clermont of France are intent on upsetting that particular apple cart, the smart money is still on Leo Cullen and Rassie Erasmus leading their respective sides into a tantalising head-to-head when the PRO12 final comes to Dublin's Aviva Stadium on May 27.

And, at present, Ulster barely factor into the equation.

Having only managed a draw at home to Cardiff on Friday night, Les Kiss' side have fallen to fifth place in the domestic table and will need to beat Munster this Saturday (3.00pm kick-off), as well as Ospreys and Leinster, if they are to have any hope of regaining their play-off placing before season's end.

Having already had to watch his Ireland colleagues be involved in the sharp end of one competition this season, Rory Best has little appetite for being on the outside looking in as they also dominate domestic matters.

"As much as you want to see them do well, it's tough to watch," said the national captain of the seasons being forged in both Dublin and Limerick.

Nearing his 200th appearance for his native province, Best is one of only four men in the squad to have lifted any silverware with Ulster - the others being Roger Wilson, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, all from the 2006 Celtic League title - but having been integral to so many teams who went close to ending that drought in recent years, few would begrudge the veteran hooker a second honour in a white jersey before he hangs up his boots.

With it seemingly unlikely to come this season, Best admitted that it has been difficult to watch the final stages of the Champions Cup with Ulster having suffered a pool stage exit for a third successive season.

"This was the first year I told myself I was looking forward to watching them (the Champions Cup quarter-finals), just as games of rugby," he said.

"As soon as they (the quarters) started, I realised I was kidding myself. It is frustrating, incredibly so. Even for the PRO12, you want to see all the teams do well but it's very tough not being a part of those games."

With Ulster certainly lacking the consistency of their southern neighbours this season, as well as an ability to win the biggest of games in years gone by, Best believes their old rivals have raised the bar that his side must aim towards.

"Munster and Leinster, they have set the standard," said the Poyntzpass man.

"If you want to win this league, they're the teams and the level you have to reach. You have to be realistic and look at it as that's the level that it takes to win.

"Our performances just haven't been anywhere near that level.

"But I believe that we have the personnel and players to be at that standard.

"You have to look at it that way."

Given the amount on the line for Ulster in Thomond Park this weekend, talk of the British and Irish Lions may be diminished in this part of the world over the next seven days but the game does also represent a final chance for players to impress head coach Warren Gatland.

With the squad that will travel to New Zealand this summer to be announced next Wednesday, Best is one of a number who will be looking to press his case one last time.

"It's all anyone wants to talk about and you can understand that because it's such a big event, but as a player, you just have to trust that what you're doing and what you have been doing is right," said the man who was a late call-up for the trip to Australia four years ago and a candidate to captain this year's side.

"You have to play your own game and everything else will take care of itself.

"Putting it to the back of your head is an achievement in itself because that's dealing mentally with the pressure.

"There'll be those names with question marks beside and the reality is that either the question mark gets rubbed out or your name does.

"For me, I know that every game, it's just the next one that matters.

"If you go in with the attitude that you're just trying to make yourself available, then that's when your form drops.

"I don't think it gets any easier, but the hardest thing to do is not listen to people saying that you're this, that or the other.

"The best thing you can do is perform.

"There's always pressure though, if it wasn't the Lions it would be something else."

Belfast Telegraph


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