When you had the season Ulster have endured, thoughts of moving quickly on to the 2018-19 campaign would be perfectly understandable, yet Rory Best is not done with 2017/2018 just yet, not while there is a Champions Cup place still grab.
Ulster’s 24-24 draw at Thomond Park on Saturday consigned the northern province to fourth place in the Guinness PRO14’s Conference B, denying them a place in the end of season play-offs but giving them a lifeline into next term’s Champions Cup.
The route into Europe will most likely involve a play-off match with Conference A’s Ospreys, pencilled in for the weekend of May 18-20 in Belfast although other scenarios, such as Leinster winning the Champions Cup or Cardiff Blues taking the Challenge Cup final, mean it is still possible for Best’s team to qualify automatically as those outcomes would free up an extra spot for the PRO14.
The Ireland captain is taking nothing for granted and has demanded his team do not let this season burn out without a fight.
“I think probably when you look at the last four games (three wins and last Saturday’s draw), that Cardiff loss (a 35-17 defeat which preceded them) felt like a real low, it felt like we weren’t going out to win games,” Best admitted on Saturday night.
“We were a team who weren’t enjoying our rugby. The one thing we’ve taken from the last four games is that we’re going out to try and enjoy our rugby and to try and fire a shot.
“You’re not going to win every moment of the game, but we’ve tried to win every moment available. I think you have to give credit to the management, the staff, the players, it probably hasn’t been given that much over the last four games, but we’ve dug deep and we wanted to show and give ourselves a platform.
“It’s not something we feared, going into the Challenge Cup, even it’s not ideal. But the thing for me would be if we drifted and drifted into the Challenge Cup and just kept drifting. Wherever we end up, we’ve done it firing a shot and we need to roll our sleeves up for one more effort.”
Ulster operations director Bryn Cunningham on Saturday confirmed that a new, as yet unnamed, director of rugby had been secured for next season, replacing Les Kiss, who was sacked after Christmas, and his interim replacement, head coach Jono Gibbes, who is returning to New Zealand.
Whether the incoming boss will have a new fly-half on his books in the form of Joey Carbery or his Leinster team-mate Ross Byrne is another matter but Cunningham agreed that the starting 10 in Limerick on Saturday, former Irish U20 star Johnny McPhillips had staked quite a claim himself.
“I think that’s a good point and one of the things that’s exciting about the future of Ulster rugby,” Cunningham said. When we look at the number of young fellas representing Ireland at U20 level and NTS level there is a lot of scope for optimism.
“Seeing Johnny starting to develop more is really important, seeing the likes of Angus Curtis coming off the bench as well... I thought he performed really well today. He’s a 12 and can play 10 as well.
“We’ve got a young kid (fly-half) Michael Lowry who is coming through the ranks very soon. He is a gifted footballer and has a good rugby brain on him. There’s lots of talent. There’s no doubt that in the here and now and you are looking to challenge at the top end of competitions you will want a little bit of experience sometimes in key positions so it’s trying to find that balance. Certainly, there is a lot of optimism there over the next three or four years in what we have got in that particular position coming through.”
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