Friday 15 December 2017

We've put ourselves in a great position, we can't let it slip -- Best

"It would be nice to be able to put the pressure on the builders to make sure they're ready by winning this Saturday"
David Kelly

David Kelly

Upon the flooring of plush Ravenhill suites, the footprints of construction workers' hobnailed boots and the studded footwear of Ulster's professional players are almost indistinguishable.

Work is continuing around the clock to ensure that the 18,000- seater stadium can present itself in all its splendour for a prospective Heineken Cup quarter-final clash.

The builders are convinced that they can discharge their part of the bargain; now it is up to their stellar tenants to confirm that they have what it takes to ensure that the Ravenhill faithful will get the chance to roar on a team befitting such a splendid spectacle.

"It's massive," says hooker Rory Best, scanning the array of spotlights shepherding the workers well beyond dusk as he contemplates a potential Ravenhill quarter-final denied Ulster for the past three seasons.

He refers to both the concrete edifice dwarfing his frame and the equally substantial task that awaits them against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road on Saturday.

"It would be nice to be able to put the pressure on the builders to make sure they're ready by winning this Saturday," he says.

"This place has come on so much in the last couple of years and it would be nice to cap off where this team wants to go by securing that home quarter-final.


"And we know that if we can get the ground finished, you're looking at having 18,000 people cheering us on. It's what you play rugby for. You want to play for Ulster, you want to play in the biggest games and you want to play them at home."

Ulster are alone in Europe in achieving the feat of four successive last-eight appearances and, regardless of the statistic that has restricted the chances of any team with a 100pc record in qualification winning the competition outright, Best is adamant that his side want nothing less than the joy of six come Saturday night.

"We talked at the start of the campaign that we wouldn't be going anywhere looking for losing bonus points," insists Best, who made a miraculous return last week from the fractured wrist sustained against the All Blacks in November.

"Our target was that we'd be going to win every game and we did that by winning away to Montpellier, and this weekend is no different.

"We know that going to Leicester is tough, but we also know that we're capable of winning there. Once we started qualifying regularly out of our pool, we talked a lot about how the next thing we wanted was a home one.

"We've put ourselves in a great position, but we've done that before and let it slip; that defeat at home to Northampton Saints last season ultimately cost us a home quarter-final, so we've got to make sure we do everything right."

It is clear that the stakes -- and the mind games -- are increasing exponentially the nearer it comes to the shootout, a clash made all the more intriguing in the knowledge that this pair may yet face off in a quarter-final.

Ulster pulled their two half-backs from media duties, ostensibly so that Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson could undergo extra kicking practice, a tactic that didn't surprise Leicester assistant coach Geordan Murphy.

"Ulster are a good side, they're playing no-frills stuff and kicking to put teams under pressure," he notes. "I don't expect much flash rugby, but we will want to play a little bit. They kicked a lot at home against us and also against Montpellier, home and away. We're expecting to be on the receiving end of an awful lot of kicks."

Earlier in the day, Ulster CEO Shane Logan gathered all of his staff at Ravenhill to deliver one of his occasional upbeat, motivational speeches -- it is clear that Ulster's season will be determined by delivering a significant European statement.

With the IRFU likely to cede limited ground in terms of their overseas player policy as Ulster seek replacements for the departing John Afoa, Tom Court, and most probably Johann Muller, Heineken Cup progress is integral to Ulster's ambitions.

Ulster have been skirting the elite in recent times without ever crashing the top table. Now is their time to establish themselves as verifiable heavyweights representing this island.

"The biggest statement is to win it," admits Best, still stung by their comprehensive defeat to unstoppable Leinster two seasons ago in Twickenham. "Until you do that, people don't really talk about you."

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