WHILE SUPPORTERS AND journalists enjoy celebrating milestones such as Rory Best’s 150th appearance for Ulster this weekend, for the players themselves they are mere sideshows.
Fully recovered from the fractured arm he sustained against the All Blacks in November, the Ireland international is unsurprisingly modest in stressing that Ulster’s target of a home Heineken Cup quarter-final is the only landmark occupying his thoughts.
By beating Leicester at Welford Road tomorrow, the northern province can ensure exactly that.
“Obviously, I suppose 150 caps is a great achievement, it’s a nice milestone to get. Ultimately, you’d swap all of that to get a home quarter-final. It’ll be nice when you finish to look back and count up all your caps but it’s not something I’m focusing on.
It has the potential to be a great day for us. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot over the last couple of years. Once we started two or three years ago, got out of the group and into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time, we said then the next thing we wanted was a home one.”
That target is within touching distance for Ulster, but the home stretch is certain to be a tigerish slog at Welford Road. That Mark Anscombe’s men are even in this position is worthy of note in Best’s eyes, particularly given that he feels the strength of Pool 5 has not been fully appreciated.
“I think the thing that has possibly been overlooked is, in my opinion, that this is the toughest group in the competition. Other groups have been talked about a lot and that’s probably because they’re a bit closer than us.
“When you looked at the draw last June-time, it was very much that this was the so-called group of death. To be five from five going into the last round is a great achievement for us.”
Best made his return to playing action as the starting hooker in the 27-16 victory over Montpellier last weekend, admitting that he endured a “fairly tentative first 20 minutes” against the Top 14 side.
Best fractured his arm in November against the All Blacks. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne.
However, the remaining 60 saw the Craigavon man “a little bit more like my old self” as his confidence returned with each of each of his six powerful tackles. Two trademark turnovers were further promising signs.
Best insists that Montpellier had not been given enough respect in the build-up from those outside the Ulster camp, explaining that the missed try-scoring bonus point has caused little regret.
“When you look at the Montpellier squad, they don’t really have a big difference between what would be perceived as their first team and second team. There were a lot of boys there that have struggled in the last five or six games, a lot boys who came over here to make a statement that they want to start in the Top14.
“It left them very dangerous and I think it was a very professional performance to win the game.”
And so to the “shoot-out” with Richard Cockerill’s sometimes ferocious Leicester side, who sit fifth in the Aviva Premiership at present. Best toured with the Lions last summer alongside Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Geoff Parling, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs and Tom Youngs, meaning he has an insight into the club’s mindset.
I’ve known them as individuals for some time now. It’s what you would expect from a successful outfit; they’re very determined, they’re ruthless, they know their stuff, they know their rugby. They’re a very close-knit, together bunch.
“They’re great lads on the pitch and off the pitch, they’re very tough. Here at Ravenhill, they came flying in and they didn’t care who you were. After the game, we had a good bit of craic.”
“They’re a very good team. You don’t get six Lions from one club and not be a good team.”
Tomorrow’s encounter is what the Heineken Cup is all about.