Backtrack for a second to the end of January 1999. Westlife were number 1, Glenn Hoddle gave that infamous interview that led to his eventual dismissal, and a 16 year old Rory Best was part of a sea of Ulster fans at Lansdowne Road for what has proved to be, so far, their only European title. Fast forward to now and Best is one of the senior figures in the Ireland squad, captaining the side against Scotland and England in the Six Nations. On Saturday however, he will be all about Ulster.
“I was about 16/17 and there was a squad of us who travelled to Lansdowne for it. There were a lot of similarities with the semi-final in terms of the volume of people trying to cross the border. It was an incredible achievement, but it was so long ago that I don’t think the pressure weighs down on us at all. As a squad, we’re putting the pressure on ourselves because you don’t get many opportunities to be in a Heineken Cup final.”
Looking back on that semi-final victory against Edinburgh, the support Ulster received from their thousands of fans certainly affected Best and his side. “There were a lot of nerves and a lot of expectation from the people we knew going to the game. I reckon about half of Ulster were in the Aviva and to have that level of travelling support is something we’re not really used to. When we started it was as though we were playing not to lose it rather than going out to win it, but we’ve overcome that barrier and now all the focus is on getting over to Twickenham.”
Their performances in last season’s Heineken Cup were an early indicator that Ulster were beginning to grow as a European force once more. Win over Biarritz and Bath were enough to see them qualify as 8th seeds for the knockout stages, but lost out in a brutal encounter under the Milton Keynes sun to Northampton Saints. By reaching their first quarter-final since 1999 though, the seeds were sown for something greater.
“We learned a lot. It was a hard experience because for 60 minutes we were very much in the game. Our lack of depth cost us a bit and we took a lot away from that defeat to Northampton. I suppose this time round in the semi-final against Munster we started to turn the screw in the scrum and the lineout and that got us across the line. Sometimes you need to lose the tight games to show that you’re not that far away. Despite losing, we took confidence from that.”
The group of players standing in Best’s way are players he knows all too well. At the end of the month he will board the plane to New Zealand for Ireland’s summer tour united in the hunt for a first victory against the All Blacks. Having come so far though in the Heineken Cup, Best will be doing his friends no favours.
“It’s a fabulous honour to make the final, but you want to make sure come 8 o’clock on Saturday that you’re lifting the trophy, because that’s why you start out in this competition. We play Leinster enough times to know that we’ll be facing a quality outfit. You have to try and take it out of it and treat it as another game. Once the game’s over and we’ve shook hands we’ll get on well again but between now and then it’s all about Ulster.”
As well as being driven by the memories of ’99, Ulster will be motivated by another special factor this weekend. Brian McLaughlin will no longer be Ulster first team coach next season, but the influence he has placed on the Ulster squad over the last two years have been remarkable. For Best, there would no better way for him to depart than with the greatest trophy of all.
“Brian’s been a major part of this turnaround. He came in when we were struggling a couple of years ago and installed some belief, culture and I suppose bloody-mindedness – all traditional Ulster views that had perhaps faded a little bit. But everyone bought into it within the club and the fans and the new signings and it’s worked out. To win this trophy in his last game would be a great gesture from the squad.”
by Ben Coles
Rory Best was speaking to The Rugby Blog on behalf of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, handcrafted in small batches for a smooth taste at Ireland’s oldest working distillery, in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.