Iain Henderson has described Rory Best as ‘being Ulster Rugby for the past 10 years or more’.
The Ulster - and Ireland - captain will make his last appearance at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening when he leads his side out against Connacht in a Guinness PRO14 semi-final qualifier (5:35pm).
Best will retire from professional rugby at the end of Ireland’s participation in this autumn’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
And while there are hopes it will not be his final appearance in an Ulster shirt this season - there is certain to be massive emotional scenes tonight when the final whistle rings out at Kingspan.
Tonight’s game is the first of the PRO14 Final Series, with the winner of the Belfast tie facing Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun on Friday , May 17.
In the other semi-final, being played at Thomond Park this afternoon, Munster face Benetton with the winners going on to take on Leinster in Dublin on May 18.
Hailing the influence Best has had around Ulster, Henderson said: “Right from the very start when I joined, Rory was an incredibly influential player.
“Not just for me, but for everyone in the squad and I think it is one of his best aspect of him being a player and a captain is how much influence he has over not just other hookers, not just the pack but throughout the whole team.
“Starters, non-starters, the respect that he commands and that is not unearned respect, that’s because everyone understands that the player in his position and the captain he is because of what he does on the field and off the field.
“You’d struggle to find someone who would do more extras and more bits and pieces of training when he doesn’t have to, on his down day. Looking at other pieces of rugby, watching other rugby games.
“It’s things like that, that don’t go unnoticed. People pick up and understand that’s why he is so good and that’s why he has had the longevity he has, continues to play top-level rugby.”
And that model is one every player tries to aspire to as Henderson explained.
“I am certain a lot of the players looked at me when I came in as a lanky kid who didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
“I knew I wasn’t an incredibly natural rugby player. I had to learn, I had to take a lot of learnings from players I played with and Rory was definitely one of those players.
“One of those players you have to look at and almost analyse what he does, to get to where he has and get what he has got.
“In terms of Ulster rugby, he kind of has been Ulster Rugby for the last 10 years or more. Since I have come in, it has been Rory Best as the key player,” added Henderson.
Connacht come to Belfast as underdogs in spite of having been the only side to win in any competition this season at Kingspan Stadium - that win last October being their first victory over Ulster in Belfast since 1960.
“Connacht came here with a real attitude and mentality to try and overturn us physically, and to be fair for most of the game I think they did.
“But we’re playing better rugby, and that’s something we ourselves know and have worked on and hopefully we’ll be able to show that at the weekend,” Henderson said.
“We’ve changed how we play, we’re trying to play faster, play more, play a quicker brand of rugby. That doesn’t just happen on the pitch, that’s through pre-season and through training during the week.”