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Ulster players must achieve something else rather than look back at 1999: Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster skipper Rory Best has urged his young side to create their own legacy as the province build into Saturday's Champions Cup pool finale with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road (3.15pm kick-off).

Twenty years on from their most memorable triumph, Ulster's European heroes of 1999 were paraded onto the pitch ahead of last weekend's hugely impressive win over Racing 92.

But Best will not be looking to feed off that emotion as he leads his side out this weekend knowing that a win will guarantee a first return to the last eight of the Champions Cup since 2014.

"We were out doing our warm-up when they got introduced and it got loud," said Best, fresh from his Special Recognition Award at Monday night's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.

"But for too many years we've looked back and thought 'we have to replicate that (team)'. We don't.

"We have to create our own legacy here. We've got to build and see how far we can push this group.

"We talked about it in 2006 when we won something and in 2012 when we got to finals. It then became words and not actions.

"We thought it would just happen and that's the experience that we're going to have to get into this team, that we don't want to be sitting here in another 10 years introducing the 1999 team again because we haven't done anything since.

"The frightening thing is you don't want to walk around the changing room now and ask where you were when Ulster lifted the European Cup because there's boys in there who weren't born, boys who don't have any recollection of it.

"I was on a bus from Portadown and I was of age to have a few drinks on the way down."

While Best, at 36-years-old, jokes about his young team-mates' whereabouts when Ulster lifted the trophy, he is more serious when weighing up the merits of such a youthful squad having Dan McFarland's men on the cusp of knock-out rugby once again.

Given the huge swathes of experience lost at the end of last season, and a daunting pool that pitched them against last season's beaten finalists and semi-finalists, few would have expected Ulster to be in such a position come round six.

Their victory over Racing though means they are in pole position to gain a berth as one of three best runners up and could even go through on their current tally of 18 points.

While naturally keen to finish the job this weekend - unlike last year when they faltered at the final hurdle against Wasps - Best was naturally proud of the efforts against the French heavyweights that has put them in such a position.

"It was a great performance against one of the best sides I've played against in club competition," he said.

"It's a young an inexperienced group. It's very exciting. We've come on a long away. It's sometimes been two steps forward and one step back but we're trying to build that in four, five, six (steps forward).

"You go into the last round of Europe with your destiny in your own hands is all you could ask for at this point.

"The quarter-finals, the top eight teams in Europe, to be in with a shout of that for this group is a fantastic achievement.

"It might take a year or two to see the best of this particular bunch of players but it's very exciting."

Leicester, of course, are a side with a similarly proud European history having succeeded Ulster as champions in 2000 and then retained their crown the next year.

The Premiership giants are enduring a fallow spell, however, and are already well out of contention for the last eight.

Matt Toomua though has promised motivation will be no issue come the weekend.

"It's still very much a big game for us, every match we play at Welford Road is," said the Wallaby centre who filled in at fly-half in last week's defeat to Scarlets.

Despite that result, this is a Tigers team seemingly in much better shape than the last block of European fixtures.

Defeats to Racing in the back-to-backs concluded a worst run of form at the club since the 1970s but things have been on the up since and they now sit just three points off the top four and 12 ahead of bottom-placed Newcastle.

"It has been a bit of a roller coaster for us and our fans at the moment," Toomua admitted.

"We're taking two steps forward, one back and then two forward and we need to rid ourselves of that and keeping making strides forward."

The recent upturn of former Ireland international Geordan Murphy's side has been the product of improved results at Welford Road having beaten Harlequins and Gloucester either side of the new year.

"The club has a proud record at home and even if we can't qualify for the knock-out stages, we'll be going out with that in mind," added Toomua, who will return to Super Rugby after this season.

"We've been really good at home in recent weeks and we'll be going out there on Saturday to continue that.

"In no way are we just thinking that all we need to worry about is the Premiership, every game is important for us in building and improving," Toomua says.

"It starts this Saturday by putting in a big performance against Ulster, which can help us in big ways. It's a big opportunity to continue to improve our game."

Belfast Telegraph

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