Ulster have to deilver to achieve home target: Rory Best

Ulster captain Rory Best
Ulster captain Rory Best

It is all to play for in the race to secure a home semi-final with the top four sides going head-to-head this weekend in the penultimate round of the regular Guinness PRO12 season.

The top four sides are already assured of a place in the play-offs, but who will have a crucial home semi-final is still to be determined.

Second placed Munster come to the Kingspan Stadium to face Ulster, lying in third and a point behind.

League leaders Glasgow Warriors - who are two points clear of Munster - face a trip to the Liberty Stadium where they face Ospreys, who are four points behind the Scots.

It could not be any closer and the league organisers, sponsors and fans are relishing the final two weeks.

There is no point in even looking ahead to the final round of matches as this weekend’s results could throw up all sort of permutations.

For Ulster the equation is fairly simply. Win against Munster on Saturday afternoon and then at Scotstoun against Glasgow a week later and they will be back in Belfast for a home semi on the weekend of May 22/23.

“It is a fairly simple equation,” Ulster captain Rory Best says with a small smile, acknowledging the fact the squad will face their toughest two games of the season in the next fortnight.

“It is in our hands at the end of the day and it is up to us to deliver on the day,” he adds.

“We showed against Leinster what we can do. That was a professional performance, probably our best this season.

“We talked all year -and people thought I was mad when I was saying - that we are building something here.

“We are training well and it is going to take a bit of time and hopefully by the end of the season it will start to come.

“We have improved game on game and we know we need to keep on improving.

“The Leinster game was good for us, we played well in the conditions, we did what we had to, we were very professional how we went about that.

“Now we have to better than that again for the next game. That is the way we are going forward.”

Best, Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson enjoyed a trophy win with Ireland this season in retaining the Six Nations champions and Ireland’s most capped hooker admitted having a taste of silverware in the green jersey adds to the hunger to do it with his Province.

“Twelve months ago sitting in a dressing room in Paris (after winning the Six Nations) we knew what you needed to produce to win something,” said Best.

“At that stage there was not anyone left who had won the Grand Slam (in 2009), Tommy (Bowe) had just come home and he was injured, there was myself, Stephen (Ferris) and Paddy (Wallace) had retired, Tom (Court) had left, so we did not have a lot of Ulster people who had experienced winning.

“From that game and with some more Ulster players winning this season, some for the first some for the second, when you win at that level you realise what it takes.

“In respect of the Guinness PRO12, the other three teams in the Top Four are not going to hand it to us. We have to go out and take it, we have to go out and perform to a level and that was what we were guilty off in the past when we reached the final and semi-finals.

“Leinster had beaten us on the big occasion in the last number of years because they performed better on the day or they had better starts and we had to chase the game and ultimately we have to learn now no one is going to hand it to you

“It is not going to be easy, but if you can get across that line it is definitely worth it.

“Winning the last two championships with Ireland really shows that.

“You are in pieces afterwards having given everything you had, but suddenly when the final whistle goes you find a bit of energy from somewhere!”

Following a tumultuous summer when Ulster saw a major changing of the guard in the backroom staff with David Humphreys departure as director of rugby and the moving on of head coach Mark Anscombe coupled with several big names such as Johann Muller and John Afoa also leaving, few had been tipping Ulster for success this season.

There was no surprise that the European Cup campaign failed to deliver in a difficult group which included eventual champions, Toulon.

But to have secured Champions Cup rugby for next season and also a place in the top four of the Guinness PRO12 is not a complete surprise to Best and the squad.

“We had a lot of uncertainty at the start of the season and I spoke a lot about the senior player group and how we got together and whenever there was uncertainty we tried to give a bit of solidity at that time.

“Even with the changes we knew we still had a strong enough squad to be in the mix for the league title.

“I do not think we ever give enough credit to Neil Doak either. I think for him, Jonny Bell and Alan Clarke who stepped in after the summer changes, especially Doaky being head coach to step into the breach at a time of uncertainty it would be nice to win something for him,” added Best.

Ulster’s captain is not often shocked, but he certainly looked surprised when he was named as the Heineken Ulster Rugby ‘personality of the year’ at the annual awards gala dinner.

“I think when I heard during the week that I was nominated for player of the year it was a nice surprise up against two guys (Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy) who had really good seasons.

“It was a huge honour to win the top award and it means so much to me.”

Ulster means a lot to me and to win this award is very special.