Rory Best’s ankle injury has cleared up in time to allow him to have the send-off he hoped for, and the Ireland captain suspects he’ll be an emotional wreck when he says goodbye at the Kingspan Stadium tonight.
The 36-year-old, who is retiring after the World Cup later this year, will lead Ulster out for the last time on home soil for the PRO14 quarter-final against Connacht, just five weeks after leaving the Aviva Stadium on crutches.
The injury sustained early on in the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster looked like it might be a season-ender, but Best has given everything to play one last time at home.
“When the scans came back and it wasn’t as bad as we first feared, this was always the target,” Best admitted.
“At that time it was unsure whether we’d get a home quarter-final but when we performed the way we did against Edinburgh to secure that, it was always a big goal of mine to play in this game and I worked hard to try and get one last game at the Kingspan.
“It will be emotional. It’s hard to believe after playing so many times here, but you always want to do one more.
“I’m one of the few lucky enough to have played at Ravenhill, and Kingspan as it’s now known, and there’s so many memories for me from the first cap to a hundred caps, to 200 caps.
“For myself and Darren (Cave), it would be lovely to get as many people in as we can to thank them for all the support over the years.
To be playing at home against really tough opposition in a knockout game, it doesn’t get any better than that, and it would be lovely for me to say goodbye with a big performance here.
Aside from the emotional undercurrent, there’s a big game to be won, and Ulster are unlikely to be distracted from their attempt to beat Connacht for the first time this season.
Andy Friend’s side have beaten Ulster home and away and last October earned Connacht a first win in Belfast since 1960, making them the only visiting team to win at Kingspan this season.
So does that make it more or less likely they can repeat the trick tomorrow?
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Best.
On one hand, they’ll be buoyed and take confidence from being the only team who have come here and won, so they’ll have no fear. On the other hand for us, we know how good they are and know how good we need to be to perform.”
As expected, Jacob Stockdale has missed out with a hamstring injury, but otherwise the Ulster team has a familiar look, with the retiring Cave, who’s spent 13 years at the club, on the bench.
The big decision for Andy Friend was which of his in-form scrum-halves to pick, and he has decided to give Kieran Marmion the first shot, with Caolin Blade among the replacements.
On the wing, Stephen Fitzgerald gets the nod ahead of the benched Darragh Leader, while Dave Heffernan starts at hooker ahead of Shane Delahunt.
“I think we’re a really competent and confident group of players who know they haven’t played their best football yet,” said Friend.
“Probably what we haven’t seen as much in a couple of recent games is the threats we’ve got out wide, so I’m hoping it all comes together on Saturday night.
“We know we’ve got a platform which we’ll be able to build from — scrum and lineout and maul, if we need that.
“We’re in a really healthy spot, we’ve got really good squad depth now and a lot of blokes are pushing each other, which gets the best out of everyone.”
M Lowry; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Best (c), R Kane, I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M
R Herring, A Warwick, T O’Toole, A O’Connor, S Reidy, D Shanahan, D Cave, A Kernohan.
T O’Halloran; S Fitzgerald, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; E McKeon, C Fainga’a, J Butler (c).
S Delahunt, P McCabe, C Carey, E Masterson, P Boyle, C Blade, T Daly, D Leader.