Best rallies his troops as Ulster stare into abyss
Published 11/12/2015 | 02:30
Ulster's pre-Christmas exit from Europe last season hangs over them like a haunting shadow and as Toulouse arrive in Belfast this evening, they can inflict further pain on what has already been a damaging week up north.
Defeat at the Kingspan Stadium would leave Ulster and their new director of rugby Les Kiss facing down the barrel of another premature exit from the Champions Cup.
Ulster will be the first to enter the bear pit as they somehow look to get a seriously daunting weekend for Irish rugby off to a positive start, but their preparations have been far from ideal.
The cost of last week's victory cannot be understated, with Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy and Peter Nelson all potentially ruled out for the rest of the season, while Darren Cave is also sidelined for both meetings with Toulouse.
Given the scale of the injury toll when Ireland toppled France at the Millennium Stadium two months ago, Rory Best doesn't need any reminding about the cost of losing key players at such a crucial stage.
"It's one of those, you look at injuries and go 'why did we risk him there?' but ultimately at some point you have to play and unfortunately you're going to get injured," the Ulster captain maintained.
"Touch wood it's not this week or next and you'll always think, 'he had an opportunity to not play there' but you look at Ireland at the World Cup, you can't live your life worrying about what you could have done. You have to say 'look, this has happened.'"
Best has been down this road a number of times before: backs to the wall, French giants coming to town, and still managed to pull off a victory . . . yet it is extremely difficult to feel in any way confident of Ulster's chances this time.
Last month's dismal performance at home against Saracens has left Ulster with a mountain to climb, and going up against a side littered with international stars and who are just one point off the summit of the Top14 is as unenviable as tasks come.
"One door closes another one opens," Best said as he attempted to shed some sort of positive light on his side's causality list.
"You look back at all of us, maybe with the exception of Ruan (Pienaar), we've come in through someone else's injury or someone else's bad form.
"My first start came for Ulster because there were a couple of injuries; that's just the way it works, you get this opportunity. It is really unfortunate, the three boys that are out long-ish term. Ultimately it will give someone else a chance."
Kiss has been forced to ring the changes with Louis Ludik, Stuart McCloskey and Alan O'Connor among the players coming in.
Ulster's postponed game against Oyonnax has clouded the complexion of Pool 1 but if Toulouse were to win tonight, it would all but seal the northern province's fate.
Toulouse, who themselves are going through something of a transition since Guy Noves left to take over the national side, also came unstuck against Saracens but that defeat came just hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris, so their minds were undoubtedly elsewhere.
They have star quality throughout their side, with the likes Vincent Clerc and Gael Fickou in the back-line while their back-row of Yacouba Camara, Louis Picamoles and skipper Thierry Dusautoir is among the best in the competition.
"When you think about European rugby, historically Toulouse are the top team," Best admitted. "When you look at the quality, they can play any style of rugby they want. They're very, very good players.
"Everyone talks about the flair of the backs, but a lot revolves around the back-row. When we have the ball we need to make sure we're good because Dusautoir is one of the best sevens over the ball if you're not quick and you don't get rid of him early."
Defeat for Ulster tonight and it will be Toulouse who will be getting rid of them early. It's been 17 fruitful years since no province managed to reach the knockout stages of the European Cup but this weekend could well be the beginning of a watershed moment for Irish rugby.
Ulster - L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; M McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, R Lutton, C Ross, R Wilson, P Marshall, I Humphreys, R Scholes.
Toulouse - C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, G Fickou, T Flood, M Médard; L McAlister, S Bézy; V Kakovin, C Flynn, C Johnston; Y Maestri, J Tekori; Y Camara, T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles. Reps: J Marchand, C Baille, D Aldegheri, E Maka, G Lamboley, G Galan, J-M Doussain, A Palisson.
REF: W Barnes (England)
Ulster v Toulouse, Live, BT Sport, 7.45,