Ulster’s players are hoping their season can start in earnest tonight with a Heineken Cup home win over Gloucester at a packed out Ravenhill, with their new captain Rory Best insisting that his side is “as good, if not better” than the English visitors.
Ulster have had a troublesome start to the season, losing four of their opening six Magners League matches and also missing the presence of last season’s skipper, prop Simon Best in the squad due to his heart scare.
Best’s brother Rory has taken over the captaincy for this year and admits that the last few weeks, since his return from the World Cup, have been difficult.
“As an individual firstly, I am not pleased with the way I have been playing. It is hard when you’re not playing well. You try harder and harder, but things still do not come off and you just have to go back and take stock,” said the Ireland front rower.
“It is important to look at what you did well. Once you get the simple foundations you can build on that. As a captain of a team you want to be involved in a winning side. Leading a successful team is always easier, but you expect the boys to follow your example.
“And when the backs are against the wall to come out fighting. That is what is happening with us at the moment and I know the boys will come out with the same attitude as me on Friday night.
“The fans are very loyal here and they expect high standards from us, as we do from ourselves. We are disappointed with the past few weeks, but we also know the fans get behind us and it is up to us now,” he added.
“But we also know the patience can only last so long, but we know we will get a massive reception on Friday night, so it is up to us to go out there and given our supporters what they want.”
Ravenhill is expected to be jam-packed for Friday’s encounter with the capacity at the Belfast venue extended to 13,056. Ulster’s last home outing saw them come from behind to draw 16-16 with Leinster in the Magners League but their luck ran out once again last week when they lost 25-6 away to Glasgow in the league.
“Everyone got a copy of the Glasgow game and went home to examine it because there were a lot of individual errors and players can analyse their own game and take their own conclusions from it,” Best explained.
“We have been focused on Gloucester 100 per cent. The Heineken Cup is the closest thing you will come to at club rugby to an international match, something we touched on as a squad this week.
“You looked around the room and it was full of internationals and we were talking about preparing for this game as they would if they were starting or were on the bench for an international match. That is how big a game this is.”
Best was away with the Ireland World Cup squad when Ulster met Gloucester in a pre-season friendly in early September, with Dean Ryan’s men running out 23-19 winners and the Ulster skipper is confident that the 1999 Heineken Cup champions can bounce back from that result and their recent slump in the league.
“Back in September we had a lot of our squad unavailable due to the World Cup and some players injured, while they had players missing as well and have made a few new signings since. I think it is fair to say the two sides will show a lot of changes from that game.
“Gloucester are a star-studded side. If you look at a squad and look at a club’s bench on a matchday, it tells you how good a side are. There are going to be internationals on our bench, there are going to be quality players who have big impact there and that tells you just how good we are too. Man for man we are just as good, if not better, in every department,” he argued.
Best’s Ireland team-mate Isaac Boss, who has made the Ulster scrum half berth his own since early 2006, agrees with the captain in that the men in white are due a big performance.
“Obviously we’re very disappointed with our form so far but this is the best place to put it right. To get a win behind our belts in this match would mean a whole lot, not just in the Heineken Cup but for the rest of the season,” said the Tokoroa-born pivot.
“Gloucester were beaten by Wasps last weekend but I don’t know if that helps us or not as it has probably given them a wake-up call coming into the match. They are a good side but no one comes to Ravenhill and gets away easily and we are going to be gunning for them.”
Boss is very much aware that Ulster have struggled to score tries in their opening six Magners League games – indeed they have only crossed the whitewash five times during that run – and Mark McCall’s side are determined to put that right over the next two weekends against Gloucester and Bourgoin.
“It’s a point we have made in training, the times we haven’t had a lot of the ball and when we have had it we haven’t been able to finish off. We’ve got to be more clinical and hopefully we have learned from our previous errors in that area and can finish off a few tries this week and next,” he added.