Rory Best: ‘Basket case’ Ulster have turned it around

Rory Best during Guinness PRO14 semi-final qualifier between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium
Rory Best during Guinness PRO14 semi-final qualifier between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium

Ulster captain Rory Best admits he would love to sign off a 15-year career with the Province with some silverware, but he would just be as content to see the squad continue to progress.

On Friday night Ulster will travel to Scotstoun and face Glasgow in a Guinness PRO14 Championship semi-final.

Victory would see them return to Glasgow’s Celtic Park eight days later to contest the final against either Leinster or Munster.

Reaching the knockout stages on the domestic front this season as well as a European Champions Cup quarter-final is in stark contrast to the same period a year ago when Ulster failed to qualify for the knockouts and were facing a play-off against Ospreys for a place in this season’s European competition.

That came on the back of what was a tough season both on and off the pitch.

Their performances prompted all sorts of comments from pundits, the most damning of all from former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, who described the Province as a “basket case” last April.

He even suggested the club could find it hard attracting talent to Belfast.

However, Ulster have signed several quality signings including Leinster’s Jack McGrath, an Irish and British Lion prop, who will join another Leinster old boy, Jordi Murphy who has thrived since moving North last summer.

The confirmation of the addition of New Zealander Matt Faddes to the ranks over the summer along with the previous signings of Australia second row Sam Carter and Irish-qualified front row Gareth Milasinovich, Ulster are building a strong squad for next term.

At a pre-semi-final media briefing in Dublin Ulster skipper Best, reflecting on the progress made this season and O’Driscoll’s comments, said: “How could the basket case turn around to this?

“We have taken massive steps but I think what this squad needs to do is just keep getting better, making progress.

“I have been over the years with groups in Ulster and if you take that 2006 group (Celtic League winners) that was a reasonably young group, we had a core of myself, Bryan Young, Roger Wilson, Neil Best and Neil McMillan, a real core of young early 20s.

“You had that notion then that you would just get naturally better, another year’s experience it will just happen. We did not go out and make it happen.

“I think this group needs to do that. I think it will come hand in hand, but that is the most important thing, rather than going we need silverware to show how good we are.

“We need to keep getting better, because if we keep getting better, silverware will come.

“Obviously, from my point of view I hope it is this season,” smiled Best, adding “I think if we can accelerate the way we have done in the next 12 months as we have in the past 12 months, I think this group has the potential to keep getting better and better.”

Although Ulster have been in semi-finals and finals previously, their last success came in 2006 when they won the former Celtic League.

There were no play-offs then, it was the team who finished top who took the spoils.

Best, who started in the game with Ulster defeating Ospreys 19-17 to lift the crown, does not remember a “whole lot from the game.”

“One of the big things from that team was that we never knew when we were beaten.

“We have won games in the last 10 minutes that we had no right to win. You pick up a couple of points there, no play-offs then, whoever finished top won the thing.

“Those points allowed us to go into that weekend not needing five points, I think Leinster went to Edinburgh, they got their bonus point within 20-30minutes handy enough.

“David Humphreys put the drop goal over to win it for us. The run in we had a couple of good results, we beat the Borders pretty well at home, couple of injuries. It is hard to remember it is that long ago

“There are a lot of similarities if you look at our results this year, especially at the start of the season when we were trying to combine a few new things, Dan (McFarland) was only recently in and new players, bit of a turnover of players.

“Sometimes it is not as perfect as you want it to be. You just have to roll up your sleeves and find something.

“I think we were something like 20 points down against Edinburgh or Scarlets or both, and we found ways to come back into those games. And Treviso as well. This team has found ways to get points.

“Ultimately the Edinburgh result got us the home quarter-final, but the points we picked up along the way, some of those were like getting a draw when we did not look like taking anything, and getting wins we did not look like getting and all worth four or five points.

“The character of that squad in not knowing when they are beaten and even against Connacht when they got to within a point, I have played in Ulster teams in the past, I have seen us go really defensive in situations like that and try to hang on for grim death.

“In fairness we went on attack and we got that score and Billy Burns kicking that conversion was huge too.

“Those are the sort of moments that I think you can set a team up and coach a team and have all the talent you want, but it you do not have that grit and determination to hang in during tough moments, then you probably won’t.

“It is something you cannot really coach, you can get a little bit better at it, but sometimes that is just there and this group has it,” he said.