Stars target success with Ulster and Ireland

Ulster and Ireland hooker Rory Best
Ulster and Ireland hooker Rory Best

It may not have been the start to the year Ulster’s British Lions Rory Best and Tommy Bowe had wanted following the Guinness PRO12 loss to Leinster last weekend, but there is much to keep the mind focused ahead of what is a huge year for the sport.

Both are set to be key figures for Ireland as the season enters the Six Nations championship for the National side and at then at the back end of the year there is the Rugby World Cup in England.

Prior to the Six Nations and in between that and the World Cup the Ulster duo are keen to ensure the Province is still in a position to challenge for silverware and even that skipper Best could be lifting the Guinness PRO12 trophy in May.

The only downside to what has gone in 2014 is the fact the challenge for a knockout place in the new look European Cup is all but gone - a miracle required for any chance of progress.

Both Ulster stalwarts acknowledge that the second half of 2014 has not gone quite the way they had hoped - although for Bowe he is glad to have a put a frustrating first half of the year behind him having had to miss most of it through injury.

“The high for me was obviously getting myself back in the international set up having missed the Six Nations and Summer Tour,” said Bowe.

“The wins over South African and Australia were performances which were right up there. For me they will be among the highlights of my career and hopefully I will have a few more to add in 2015,” added the winger who recently signed a new three-year deal with Ulster.

For Best being involved in the win over Australia in November - he had to miss the games against South Africa and Georgia with a calf injury - was pleasing, but the major highlight for him in 2014 in the green jersey was winning the Six Nations Championship.

“That was a massive occasion and great to have started in every game and been a part of that squad,” said Ireland’s most capped hooker.

“It is hard to believe it is coming around to defending the title now and, or course, it is a special year with the World Cup coming up as well.

“There is a lot of hard work, preparation and rugby to be played before that both internationally and with the club.”

A year ago Ulster were charging through Europe sitting top of their Pool protecting a 100 per cent record and on course to securing a first home quarter-final since 1999.

They went on win six from six, a win at Leicester Tigers in the final game leaving them as one of the favourites - along with Clermont and Toulon - to lift the trophy.

Lady luck was to desert them in the quarter-finals at the newly developed Ravenhill (now Kingspan Stadium) and Saracens were to progress thanks largely to an early red card for Jared Payne which left Ulster with an uphill struggle for most of the match.

Best cites the European Cup run as one of the highlights of 2014.

“I know part of it was 2013, but to go to Leicester in that final match and win to remain unbeaten, top the group and get the home draw was great to have been a part of.

“And that quarter-final, even though we lost that game and I had to go off injured early on so did not get to play that much of it, the build-up to it and the atmosphere of the day was very special.

“The outcome was also hugely frustrating and it was also one of the low points as well as our season falling off the cliff edge as it did after that was also hugely frustrating.”

Ulster can still, mathematically, qualify for the knockout stages even though they are sitting bottom of Pool Three and have to go to Toulon - who are seven points ahead - and then entertain Leicester come to Belfast, but it is a huge ask.

“We will certainly give it our all in Toulon, they are the defending champions and a world class team and irrespective of what happens we will not be rolling over in Belfast when Leicester comes,” smiles Best.

“But we know that first and foremost at the moment we have to be the top four of the PRO12 by the end of the league competition. We know we are a top four team and we know we can be in those play-offs,” insisted Best.

“There are a lot of injuries in the squad at the minute and people coming in are doing a job. We have said as a group that it is not the 15 who lift the trophy that count, it is the guys who get you there.

“Leinster who we played last week are probably the ultimate example of that. They went from fourth or fifth to top from the points they picked up during the Six Nations when their front liners were away.

“We are scrapping away, we are still in there at the right end of the table, which for us, bar two years ago when we were top of the table, is not a whole let better off league wise from where we were this time last year.

“And that was with really no injuries and playing our strongest team most of the time. From that point of view there are positives.

“It we can keep our boys trucking away and keep getting the wins and get a bit of a run on now during the Six Nations period, then we will be there.

“Ultimately whoever hits form in March, April and May wins the league and the key thing is being right in the mix of it going into that latter part of the season.”

Bowe does not hide the fact that the focus for the Province is fully on the league.

“I think we have to be realistic about Europe at this stage - although we will do our best to finish strongly and you can never know what happens.

“But we need to make sure we are in the PRO12 play-offs at the end of the season. We just need to find some consistency and pullout some big performances.”