Ireland skipper Rory Best returns to the fray this afternoon hopeful of leading Ulster nearer the Heineken Cup quarter-final stages, something the province hasn’t achieved for five years.
A mid-afternoon kick-off in front of a full house at the Kingspan Stadium, this crunch tie against French giants Racing 92 will in all probability decide who tops Pool 4. But even if Ulster fail to claw back the five-point advantage that Simon Zebo’s side has built, getting anything from the game would leave them in a strong position to qualify as one of the best three runners-up.
The worldly-wise farmer Best returns along with all the rest of his experienced herd after Ulster’s two disappointing inter-provincial defeats to Connacht and Leinster.
Young right wing Robert Baloucoune comes in for his first taste of European Cup action, with Jacob Stockdale passing a fitness test on his hamstring to take his place on the left. Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison link up again in midfield with Louis Ludik at full-back. John Cooney and Billy Burns are reunited at half-back.
Lock Alan O’Connor and flanker Sean Reidy are the only players retained from last week’s trip to Dublin with Kieran Treadwell coming in to partner O’Connor and Jordi Murphy and number 8 Marcell Coetzee returning to the back-row. Young Eric O’Sullivan will be fully tested with his return at loosehead with a lot of pressure also on Marty Moore on the other side.
Racing, meanwhile, are not taking any chances by the looks of things, as they will parade a starting line-out with brute and brawn allayed with speed and guile. Zebo is named on the right wing of a stellar backline. French scrum-half Maxime Machenaud leads an international parade behind the scrum alongside Scotland’s Finn Russell. Their French international captain Dimitri Szarzewski returns to hooker while there is enough beef in the pack to sustain the French economy for a month.
Best, though, is not worried about Racing. Despite a lot of homework on the opposition, he is more keen to ensure Ulster are accurate in everything they do and play as a team, rather than individuals.
“We’re just preparing a lot better,” said Best. “We were trying to prepare and put some things in place, but I think, by and large, there’s a lot more stability around the place from top to bottom to start with.
“Even last Thursday when you watched training, there was a lot of intensity which we probably wouldn’t have got last year. Those are the encouraging signs that you have to keep building on, and I think we said way back in September or October, for this group, it’s about continuing to put steps forward, and along the way there will be steps back. But this is a massive opportunity to step forward.
“With the position we’re in, we have a real possibility to go through, and I think it’ll be a sign of how far we’ve come. I think the difference is we’ve looked a bit stronger getting into this position this year.
I think this team is a lot less reliant on individual talent, and a lot more reliant on playing together as a team; making sure everyone does their bit, so that we can succeed.
“We’re trying to play more as a team, with a bit more width, a bit more speed. I think we’re better at holding onto the ball than we maybe were in the past. I think certainly our collective is our strong point rather than a scattering of world class players throughout. That’s the sort of team everyone wants to play in, it’s the one you get the most satisfaction in playing in.
“For me, it’s always been about the team. To be in an organisation that puts a lot of value in that, and puts a lot of value on small things, which not everyone sees, but they all add up. It’s really important to us, and Dan (McFarland) puts a lot of value in that.”
Best has seen rugby preparation change at great pace over his 20 years in the game.
”I’m not even sure we had laptops when I started off my career,” he smiled. “It was a bit like you turned up, you trained, you go home, you turn up and you play. That was it! You knew some of the opposition players and that was the height of the research.
“Different now, and Dan has pushed it hard. Dan spent a lot of time talking to Joe (Schmidt) and being around him when he was starting his career at Connacht and you can see a lot of the same characteristics. Jared Payne played in the Ireland set-up, he knows what is expected and even if he did not, the way he prepared when he was a player he left no stone unturned. He was one of the most professional players I played with. Grumpy as anything, but not as much now as a coach, but really, really good at what he does.”
Can Racing blunt aspirations tomorrow?
“When you talk about the European Cup, and the form teams and the teams that are favourites to win it, it is hard to look past Racing, Leinster, and Saracens. That’s what we are going to come up against. That is why European rugby is so exciting. We know they are going to come here with a fully loaded team, they are going to want to come here and make sure they can almost guarantee their home quarter-final with a win here.
“But we can take the confidence from knowing it can be achieved, it has been historically achieved by this team at this ground.
“We cannot rely on the fact that we are going to be here, hopefully a sell-out, hoping that is going to be enough to beat a team like Racing. But really it is not. It is going to take, if you want, that 16th man, but it is going to take 15 men on the pitch giving absolutely everything they have and then it is going to take the bench coming on to lift the performance again to see it out.”