Mark Allen’s Masters reign ends at first hurdle
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