It has taken 13 years for Ulster to reach their second Heineken Cup semi-final and Ireland hooker Rory Best is relishing running out at the Aviva Stadium writes the News Letter’s CIARAN DONAGHY.
“At club level it is easily the biggest game I’ve ever played in, it’s the biggest game Ulster have played in since 1999, it’s a massive occasion, it’s the biggest club competition in Europe and from our point of view we think it is the biggest in the world although the southern hemisphere would disagree,” stated Best.
“We’re in the semi-final and technically it’s a home tie and it’s exciting times.”
“We know how big a game it is and we know what it is all about, the thing that we have done so well over the last two years is that we haven’t forgotten where we have come from and how hard times have been but we also don’t forget how good we are.”
“It’s a bit of a balancing act of having that little bit of confidence having that swagger about you so you need to be a little bit humble to and realise that it is a massive game, it’s a semi final it’s a one of game and there is a massive incentive for the winner.”
Best feels the favourites tag attached to Ulster will mean nothing once the teams are out on the pitch.
“It’s not anything we’re thinking about, we knew when Edinburgh won and then when we won we’d be made favourites because of our league form, we know in these cup competitions that sometimes the league tables can lie.
“it’s up to us to make sure that is not the case, from a players point of view it’s irrelevant who is favourite, it’s a big game and we know if we get ourselves right we stand a very good chance of winning it.”
After such a long wait to reach the last four Best is determined that Ulster kick on and reach the Twickenham decider.
“You don’t get many big opportunities like this and it’s something we have talked about since Northampton last year, chances like this are few and far between.
“When you get through the quarter final now there is a window to get to the final but it’s harder and small mistakes are going to be capitalised on, it’s going to be a very intense atmosphere.”
He went on: “It’s the biggest game we’ve play in and it is potentially the biggest game that some of the players in this squad will ever play in, there are going to be a lot of very good Ulster players who won’t make the step up to international level.
“In terms of a club game this is it, this is what we have always talked about wanting to be involved in Europe, when we won the Celtic League it was like yeah it’s great to win it but you’d swap it for a Heineken Cup.”
“Now we have this opportunity and it’s within our grasp to make sure we do everything right and that we turn up confident knowing what we are going to do and how to do it.
“If you want to get to a Heineken Cup final you have to be clinical and play the best rugby you’ve ever played as a team.”
“We know at Thomond there we aspects that were very good and aspects were we can do better and have to make sure the good stuff is done as equally well and the other stuff we are better at because that is what it’s going to take.”
“Edinburgh have come through a tricky group and qualified as winners, they have beaten Toulouse who are the most successful team in Europe.”
“You are not dealing with mugs here this is a quality team and they have proven it on more than own occasion.”
Best is expecting a hard battle in the front row.
“I’ve played against Edinburgh a good few times, there are internationals and quality players and a lot of their game is based on getting a decent scrum and getting David Denton away, getting Mike Blair on the front foot.”
“The first scrum is a big opportunity for us to try and shut down a small facet of their game, we are under no illusions we know them fairly well and they know us and it’s going to be a big challenge.”
Best feels Ulster need to be wary of Edinburgh’s Irish coach Michael Bradley.
“I’ve been coached by Michael since U21 level, he came in as coach during my second year and I found him a very good coach and I wasn’t very surprised when he was given a professional outfit.”
“Due to length of time at Connacht he needed a new challenge and it’s not a surprise to me that he has got this Edinburgh team playing good rugby and in the cup competition playing winning rugby.”
Ulster’s World Cup winning prop John Afoa may be suspended but he is still having a big input into the Ulster scrum.
“John has done a good job with the extra detail of the scrum, neither of us played last weekend so we had a chance to have a look over the Edinburgh scrum while the boys were resting.”
“John helped out with the scrumming session and that is what you need, whenever he speaks about scrums everyone listens across the board, it really helps and it is important that the coaches know what is going on but sometimes that message can be a bit stronger when it comes from one of your own one of the players.”
“It’s one of those things that happens to everyone, John has been very lucky up to a point that he never has been yellow carded, never red carded and never cited and it was good for us that was taken into account.”
“If we get a win it’s a massive incentive that he will be back for the final, he knows that unfortunately that’s part and parcel of the game.”
Best has no doubt that Afoa’s replacement Declan Fitzpatrick will step up to the plate.
“It’s always the case in team sport that one person’s misfortune is another person’s fortune, Deccy has been limited in his rugby this year with injury but he came in against Leinster one of the so called best teams in Europe and he stood up and had a great game.”
“He scrummed well and he worked hard round the pitch, that is something John has brought, apart from being a great player himself he has lifted the standards that it is no longer acceptable just to be a prop to be heavy and scrummage.”
“Good tight head props can do more than just scrummage, John can play, he can tackle, he can pass and he can run and the boys around him now are looking at that and thinking it’s possible to do that.”
“I think it was a massive confidence boost for Deccy to get the start last weekend and he repaid that with his performance.”
“I’ve played with Deccy in U21 games, AIL games and we came into the Ulster senior squad together and I have no doubt he will repaid that faith on Saturday tenfold.”
“He is very honest, he is very hard working but more than that he is a very good player.”