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Why a win over Wasps could herald a bright future for Ulster, explains Rory Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

After their victory over La Rochelle last weekend, Ulster sit just one more win away from a spot in Europe's last eight for the first time since 2014, and their captain Rory Best believes overcoming Wasps in the Ricoh Arena on Sunday would have repercussions long beyond Easter weekend when the quarter-finals take place.

At 35-years-old, even with a new deal expected to come in the next fortnight, the province's only Test centurion has spoken more and more about leaving behind a legacy of late, and understands the necessity that future seasons will see more players coming through the underage systems.

Citing the example of Leinster, the only side with a quarter-final spot already secured and who have done so using a majority of players produced by their school game, Best knows that it is only success for the senior side that can guarantee talented youngsters turn to rugby rather than other sports.

"It's the hype you get around the knock-outs of the competition," said Best on why he believes big European clashes can have a long-lasting effect.

"Leinster have a conveyor belt of people coming through now and it's largely down to things like the size of Dublin and their schools, but success is also a big part of it.

"All the guys coming through now, they were kids when Leinster were, if not yet dominating Europe, making the first step to push through that ceiling.

"Seeing that, they made a decision to go and play rugby rather than something else.

"As a group, we want to be in that area for ourselves, for the players, but also for Ulster Rugby as an organisation, for the future.

"To have future players coming through, you've got to have people excited by rugby, and the only way to do that is to have big games, ideally big games at home.

"Kids want to be people on TV, they want to be people on the back pages of the papers, with all due respect to some of the teams in our league, a game against some of them doesn't get you that, but a quarter-final in Europe certainly does."

By the time those quarter-finals roll round, whether Ulster are back in the elite eight of Europe or not, it will have been four years since they last graced the same stage, a game against Saracens best remembered for Jerome Garces' decision to send off Jared Payne, Ulster losing 17-15 after playing 75 minutes a man down.

It would prove to be the last European game in a white jersey for Stephen Ferris, John Afoa, Johann Muller and Tom Court, marking the end for the last Ulster team that could claim to have any credible designs on lifting the crown.

Many more from that clash have departed since, and indeed of the 21 men used that day against Mark McCall's soon-to-be European Champions, only 11 have featured for the province this season.

With expectations having diminished little, but patently a different level of big-stage experience in the panel, Ulster and their Director of Rugby Les Kiss have been handed a difficult balancing act as they attempt to, as Best describes it, "re-educate" the squad into a winning mentality.

Despite the big result over La Rochelle, and all that is on offer this weekend, recent results have shown that to still be very much a work in progress.

"It's been frustrating," acknowledged Best. "The fans and everyone, there's so much frustration because they want to see Ulster do well but it's probably more frustrating for the players.

"We're living it every day. You can see things that you want to change, things that you want to improve. It's okay seeing it, talking about it, but actually getting that improvement is another thing.

"That's frustrating. With our group, because we haven't had success recently, and we haven't had the number of really, really successful players that we should have had, it's almost now a re-education process.

"You're saying, 'this is what you've got to put in, this is what has got to happen every week'.

"I do think there's a massive correlation with us, because we're relatively immature in a rugby sense, that when we train well, very rarely do we not play well. Whenever we don't train well, you're in the lap of the gods sometimes. You can tell a lot from our training sessions in terms of mentally how switched on we are. Then, generally, you get that transfer into the game."

As Kiss said last week, an organisation has to be better than its weakest links and for a campaigner as experienced as Best there are tell-tale signs in training of when his side are, and indeed aren't, in the mindset for elite competition.

The moment he knew they were ready for La Rochelle came when former All Black Charles Piutau, a man soon to be the best paid player in the world, flung himself to the ground to kill a dead ball, a simple thing but something that, when not done against Leinster in the RDS a week prior, cost a try.

"As a player group we prepared a lot better for La Rochelle. That's what we need to realise. Yes, people listen to what you say, but ultimately they look at what you do," said Best.

"There were small moments during the week you could see it. There was one stage a ball went down and Charles Piutau flew onto the ground to dive on it.

"We knew that La Rochelle can be lethal with that sort of thing and the attitude to stop it was there all week. If you get a young kid like Rob Lyttle, 19/20, handful of Ulster caps, but hasn't been around that much, and he looks at a New Zealander, and how much he'll be earning and stuff next year, it clicks with him that Charles does this during the week and then goes out and does what he does on Saturday, with that desire, that intent.

"That's what I mean by the education of boys. I know from a captain's point of view, certainly from a coach's point of view, it can be frustrating when you don't get it.

"You can put stuff in place but they've got to learn it themselves to then do it themselves, and that's when you see the difference. It's unfortunate but that's all you can do. I know (coach) Jono (Gibbes) especially gets frustrated. He's been around Leinster and Clermont teams that win, he's seen it first hand, he can see that it's there for us, we just have to graft.

"We prepared ourselves to have to go against La Rochelle and, it sounds cliched, but empty the tank.

"We had to go to a place where we were exhausted. Top teams don't just hand you wins. In the RDS, one of the most frustrating things was that you came off the pitch and the next day, you felt reasonably alright.

"That says to me, if you have that little bit of freshness, then you didn't commit everything to that game. This week, even on Monday, getting out of bed was a chore. You were rolling out sideways and trying to get every joint straightened out as you go along.

"As sick as it sounds that's what you want. That's when you know there was nothing left to give."

Nothing less will do come Sunday afternoon - Best must take Ulster to the well once more.

Rory Best gave an exclusive interview to the Belfast Telegraph at an event to promote Glenisk GO-YOs and the IRFU's Official Trading Cards. Every pack of GO-YOs includes three cards featuring heroes from the men's and women's senior teams. Parents can sign their kids up at Glenisk.com

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