Ulster v Scarlets: Rory Best says the door is still open for Ulster in Europe
Skipper dismisses talk of bonus points and focuses only on win
Captain Rory Best says his Ulster side are still capable of saving their European season ahead of the tonight's Champions Cup clash with Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm and live on BT Sport).
Bottom of Pool 3 after defeats to Leicester and Toulon in their opening games, Ulster face a double-header against the West Walians before travelling to the south of France to face Bernard Laporte's champions and welcoming the Tigers to Belfast next month.
With four wins the realistic requirement, the odds of making the knockout stages for a fifth year in a row are stacked against them, but Best said: "Nought from two is not what we expect, especially after going six from six last year, we don't want more credit but I just think it would be foolish to write us off at this stage.
"Everyone's talking us down at the minute, but, if you look at the league, we went to Thomond Park and are bitterly disappointed to lose by a point.
"The only other game we lost was one where we got a red card after eight or nine minutes, away in Zebre, which we were very disappointed with.
"In Europe, against Toulon a disappointing end to the first-half has really put us under pressure. From that side of things, we're still very upbeat about where we're going and how we're getting there."
The hooker does, however, admit that tonight is the season's first must-win game, even if he refutes the notion that bonus points are also an imperative.
"For us, if you lose on Saturday night it is European campaign over," said the 78-times-capped Irish international. "Obviously we need to first and foremost concentrate on the win.
"To hear questions already about needing bonus points, we first of all need to win and that's all we're going out to do.
"Everyone is saying 19, 20, 21 points to go through as second but that was the old competition.
"There's a group less, the groups are harder, teams aren't going to rack up the same number of points.
"Our big thing now is to make sure that come the end of January, we're sitting at least second in our group.
"If we've enough points, brilliant, if we don't, at least we'll have dug our way out of this and got ourselves into a strong position in a very strong group."
In the wake of the defeat to Munster last week, where Ulster led 12-0 early on but ultimately fell by solitary point after a poor return in the second and third quarters, Best was unusually vocal about the performance of referee Ian Davies, especially regarding the breakdown.
"It was just disappointing," he said. "It's not something we blame on, it's not something we hang our hat on, but when there are blatant decisions that are going against us, it's frustrating.
"Sometimes you vent a little bit in that frustration but we don't use it as an excuse.
"We know that the referees have a tough job and we know that we can do enough during the game to take decisions out of their hands."
Best was similarly forthright regarding his own team's performance and echoed head coach's Neil Doak's call for an 80-minute showing tonight.
"Some teams struggle to start the game well, we're starting the game really well and just either side of half-time is just a bit frustrating. The Toulon game it probably ultimately cost us, to go from 6-3 to 12-3, or a bit more at half-time, 16-3, was very disappointing and it sort of killed that game," he said.
"The Munster game was the same, we were ahead at half-time and then just the next 10 minutes, 15 minutes, we just went to sleep again and I think it's, as much as anything, it's trying to be smarter when things are going against us.
"As a player you don't really realise until you see the stats. There were a few stats brought up about it and it's something that we'll be concentrating on.
"It nearly cost us against the Ospreys and did cost us against Munster."
Those struggles with game management will be eased tonight by the return of two experienced and influential campaigners in the shape of Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy.
Both have recovered sufficiently from injury to be included in the starting XV and Best thinks the pair will provide a significant boost.
"They're international players. Ruan is a top, top international player and I think everyone wants to see them back on the pitch but also the players (do as well)," he said.
"You want your strongest team out. You build a squad for when you're missing players like that but ultimately the big occasion, you want your top players.
"You want to be able to give a good account of yourself."
Best knows that if Ulster are to pull off the great escape, it will take a great deal more than that.
The Inside Track: Ulster v Scarlets
Head to head
Darren Cave v Regan King
With two teams who like to move the ball, the distribution skills of the outside centres should be a pleasure to watch. While Cave was quiet against Munster, he scored twice against Ospreys the previous week and it will be interesting to see how he links with Stuart Olding after playing with the more direct Stuart McCloskey in recent weeks.
Cave spoke of his admiration for Regan King during the build-up to this game and the one-time All Black's return to Scarlets last summer was hugely welcomed in Llanelli. Massively popular in his first spell with the region, he rejoined from Clermont for this season but a hamstring injury suffered against Ulster in the first game negated his impact over the opening months.
Having been scheduled to return in the impressive win over Glasgow last month, King did not turn out again until last week's reverse to Connacht. He was named in the 12 jersey that night but returns to outside centre this evening where his quick hands and eye for a pass are a real asset.
Dan Tuohy v Jake Ball
While much of the focus has been on Ruan Pienaar's absence, Dan Tuohy's return from a broken right arm sustained against Cardiff in September also provides Ulster with a significant boost tonight.
Ulster's pack, and the tight five in particular, have made a muted impact in the ball-carrying department of late and the international lock's physicality should go some way to remedy that. In a rich vein of try-scoring form before his injury, the 29-year-old has already crossed the whitewash against the Scarlets this season.
Like Samson Lee, Jake Ball is another who had a productive November in the red of Wales. The once-promising cricketer, who moved to Australia with his family at the age of 15, has enjoyed a steady rise since his return to the principality and now looks like Alun-Wyn Jones's long term lock partner.
Sound in the set-piece, Ball's work off the ball is hugely effective when it comes to hitting rucks and he is never scared of carrying up the middle.
Callum Black v Samson Lee
The 22-year-old Samson Lee missed the Pro12 encounter between the two sides in September due to a five-week ban picked up for head-butting Springbok lock Flip van der Merwe on Wales' tour to South Africa last summer, but he has not looked back since his return.
Now firmly ensconced as Warren Gatland's first-choice tighthead, having displaced the British and Irish Lion Adam Jones from the set-up, Lee has won nine caps since his debut just over a year ago, including four starts during the recent autumn internationals. Despite his relative youth, especially so for a prop, he offers a solid platform in the scrum as well as a presence in the loose.
It is another test for Ulster's Callum Black who, like the rest of the team's front-row, will have been frustrated in recent weeks.
Against both Ospreys and Munster, Black and his colleagues appeared to have the upper hand only for the referee's perception to change as the game wore on and they know it will take an 80-minute shift this evening.
The main threats
Wayne Pivac's squad are boosted by the return of their Welsh internationals, meaning that there will still be a good mood in the camp despite some indifferent results over the last month.
Ulster will need no reminder of the danger posed by Rory Pitman after his man-of-the-match showing in the last meeting while there is plenty of potential behind the scrum.
Fullback Liam Williams is a running threat, and will be looking to make amends after a red card against Ulster last time out, while the centre pairing of Regan King and Scott Williams provides guile.
On the wings Harry Robinson and the Fijian Michael Tagicakibau offer the option of both pace and power.
The return of Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy give Ulster a more rounded look. With the Springbok scrum-half back in harness, and the rest of the backline all in their favoured positions, there can be no excuses.
As the entertaining 32-32 draw back in September proved, these are two sides who, weather permitting, aim to move the ball at pace.
However, while recent games at the Kingspan have not been much of a spectacle, rain is unfortunately once again in the offing.
Despite their public proclamations to the contrary, and bearing in mind the vast difference between the Scarlets' home and away performances, Ulster will know that five points is a realistic requirement so will need a quick start if they are to launch a try chase.
Scarlets have been in the habit of playing two opensides in their backrow to attack the breakdown in recent weeks but, with John Barclay absent, Rory Pitman replaces him at number 8.
This may be a relief to Neil Doak given that, without Chris Henry, he has no genuine number seven, but Ruan Pienaar will still be aware that he may not get the quick ball he's used to.
Of the 43 players involved in September's high-scoring contest between the pair in Llanelli, only 19 will start tonight's game while a further 10 may be involved from the bench if the mood takes the respective coaches.