Mark Allen’s Mas­ters reign ends at first hur­dle

Belfast Telegraph - - SPORT - BY JONATHAN BRADLEY

BLOOD­IED but un­bowed, Ul­ster skip­per Rory Best has warned his side they must fin­ish the job against Le­ices­ter Tigers at Welford Road this week­end and se­cure a re­turn to Euro­pean knock-out rugby for the first time since 2014.

A mighty 26-22 Cham­pi­ons Cup win against Rac­ing 92 at Kingspan Sta­dium on Satur­day has put Best’s men in con­trol of their own destiny. They were in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion last sea­son, though, be­fore los­ing to Wasps in round six in for­mer coach Les Kiss’s fi­nal game in charge and Best wants Ul­ster to show they’ve pro­gressed over the past 12 months.

“We’re def­i­nitely a team that’s try­ing to take steps for­ward,” said the skip­per, who re­ceived six stitches to a cut above his eye dur­ing the game.”

Best added: “We’re nowhere near where we want to be but I think the con­fi­dence we’ve shown and the way we’ve played to get to the points tally we’re at now com­pared to last year, I don’t think we were play­ing then to the level we are at the minute.

“We talk a lot about prepa­ra­tion and how we’re so much bet­ter pre­pared than we used to be and a lot of that comes down to the boys who weren’t play­ing, who weren’t in the 23. They put in a lot of ef­fort on Tues­day and Thurs­day to get us ready for that. It’s all about the col­lec­tive for us.

“Rac­ing have a lot of very good play­ers and a lot of good in­di­vid­u­als. We knew we had to play well as a team to rely heav­ily on our col­lec­tive to beat some of their in­di­vid­ual tal­ent. Within that, each in­di­vid­ual has to do their job, and I thought to a man ev­ery­one stood up. Even the bench com­ing on around 65, 70, they came in and lifted the boys who started to tire a bit.”

Yes­ter­day’s re­sults else­where mean Ul­ster can­not be as­sured of a place in the last eight be­fore their game (3.15pm kick-off Satur­day), al­though there is still a chance they have al­ready done enough with four wins from their five games in what was a dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult pool. Rac­ing seem­ingly have top spot all but se­cured — they’re only three points ahead but host an al­ready elim­i­nated Scarlets to fin­ish off — though Ul­ster, Glas­gow and Toulouse are in pole po­si­tion to the three quar­ter-fi­nal places re­served for best run­ners-up.

Ruan Pien­aar’s Mont­pel­lier need to take two points from their trip to Ed­in­burgh to match Ul­ster’s cur­rent tally of 18, while the only way Pool 2 could pro­duce two quar­ter-fi­nal­ists is if Ex­eter win with a try bonus against Mun­ster in Thomond Park but their hosts bank a point or two in de­feat.

Should nei­ther of those things oc­cur, Dan McFar­land’s men would be through to the last eight ir­re­spec­tive of what hap­pens against Ge­or­dan Mur­phy’s side while, as un­likely as it seems, Toulouse tak­ing no points from their home clash with Bath would also be a sce­nario that would work in Ul­ster’s favour.

Ul­ster lost scrum-half John Cooney on Satur­day morn­ing with a back is­sue he’d been deal­ing with through­out the week but more will be known to­day re­gard­ing his po­ten­tial in­volve­ment in this week­end’s game.

That will be of in­ter­est to Ire­land coach Joe Sch­midt after Le­in­ster’s Luke Mc­Grath was car­ried off in his side’s win over Toulouse while Con­nacht’s Kieran Marmion, who started the re­cent wins over Ar­gentina and New Zealand, has also been on the side­lines. Sch­midt will name his squad for the Six Na­tions this week with the first game of their ti­tle de­fence com­ing against Eng­land on Fe­bru­ary 2.

Cut above: Rory Best after win­ning Satur­day’s bat­tle

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