Rory Best has admitted he was hurt by former Ireland team-mate Brian O’Driscoll’s description of Ulster Rugby as a “basket case”.
O’Driscoll made the comments last April as Ulster were nearing the end of a terrible campaign which saw them sack director of rugby Les Kiss and then learn their replacement Jono Gibbes was leaving at the end of a season which saw them cancel the contracts of Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson and fail to reach the Guinness PRO14 play-offs.
It prompted O’Driscoll, Ireland legend turned media pundit, to sympathise with former Leinster team-mate Jordi Murphy following his decision to sign for the northern province, telling Off The Ball AM: “They don’t have a coach, (the province is) a little bit of a basket case at the moment, and he’s going up there to try and play his rugby from next year on.”
Ulster and Ireland captain Best, whose side rallied at the end of the season with a five-game unbeaten run that culminated with a European play-off win over Ospreys, said yesterday O’Driscoll’s words had stung him personally although it led to some considerable soul-searching.
“It didn’t drive us as a group,” Best said.
“He’d probably admit to it, that he didn’t mean to go as far as ‘basket case’. It sort of came out. But it does hurt when players that you played with, and you feel you’ve been competitive with in terms of Ulster and Leinster games, it does make you think ‘what are we doing that this is the perception of us?’
“In terms of the group, there were things written about us that were probably accurate enough and there were things that were wide of the mark. It’s important we don’t let that define where we’re going. We made a decision after Cardiff (a 35-17 loss on March 24), when it wasn’t about results, but about performances.
“We were so afraid to lose a game that we didn’t go out and win it. We didn’t want to make mistakes so badly that we made loads.
“You should enjoy playing in an Ulster shirt and for the two or three months, from the end of Europe to the end of the Six Nations, boys didn’t look like they enjoyed playing rugby and playing rugby for Ulster. That had to stop.”
Ulster have an opportunity to start afresh this season and the arrival of new head coach Dan McFarland this week after securing his early release as Scotland forwards coach, was warmly welcomed by Best.
“It’s really important that Dan arrived. To have no contact with him, not even up until the middle of the season, but even September or October, it would have been really difficult to change things when you’re going week to week and game to game. But now he has a week into a pre-season game where we want to play well and we want a result, but if we don’t get it this week and get it the following week, then that’s the important thing.
“Dan has two weeks now to get his head around everything and us to get our heads’ around everything he expects from us.
“That’s really good for us and it allows us to get used to him and used to his voice.”