Rory Best's post-match speech in Ulster dressing room would raise many a spirit 6 months ago

Rory Best's post-match speech in Ulster dressing room would raise many a spirit

A young side with plenty of potential, but a sharp pang of reality for a few veterans.

What could have been. Rory Best has been down this gut-wrenching road before.

Ulster played their best game of the season, in Dublin, and still have to head home as losers.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen admitted his side were not at their best but they will all wake up as winners on Sunday (even if those clocks do go forward).

Ulster should have won but it is not as if Leinster's victory was some kind of scandal. They rarely panicked and put their heads down to get back into scoring position each time they slipped behind on the scoreboard.

The tone for Ulster's excellent performance was set by their captain, Rory Best. The 36-year-old made a turnover after only 70 seconds and charged down an attempted clearance by Garry Ringrose that led to his side's opening score, by Kieran Treadwell.

He made three tackles and three carries in that opening quarter hour but was forced off with an ankle injury and was spotted, in the second half, watching the game rage on from the tunnel, on crutches and wearing a protective boot.

Ulster could have gone 20-18 ahead after Luke Marshall's try but John Cooney missed his conversion and, six minutes later, Ross Byrne put Leinster 21-18 in front. The European champions pressed forward in the final minutes and owned the ball before kicking it out when the clock went red.

(Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile)

The Ulster players were crestfallen but, to a man, they went back onto the pitch after the game to applaud the thousands that had headed to the Aviva Stadium and roared their team on.

Asked for his reaction to his side's quarter final exit, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland commented, "Desperate disappointment, a bit of alliteration for you.

"Really disappointed in the changing rooms. Lot of guys with heads down, including myself.

"We felt we could have won that game. Proud of the lads for the effort they put in, coming that close and falling short is desperately disappointing."

Iain Henderson, who replaced Best as captain after he limped off, looked utterly dejected in the post-match conference. "We took steps to get to that next level," said Henderson, "but we obviously didn't win, so that next level got away from us a wee bit."

On Ulster having a young playing squad, and potentially brighter and better days ahead, Henderson spoke of Best's words to the squad in the post-match dressing room:

"Rory touched on it there in the dressing room. We have a very young squad; average age way down in the low 20s.

"A lot of the lads haven't been in changing rooms like this but for them to get to playoff rugby in a lot of their first seasons of professional rugby - not even just their first season with Ulster - I think that is massive. It's a massive boost of confidence for them. That's their baseline now and what they want to step forward to and build towards.

"We've seen from the start of the season, people building on performances and that is something that can be shown to all those young lads that can build on their performances, and build on their careers, from this starting point. That is something I'm sure they'll use, internally, to drive them on. Not only for the next six to eight weeks, but going on for the rest of their careers."

Henderson did point out that, despite the youthful make-up of the current squad, players such as Rory Best and Darren Cave, who have been "revitalised" by playing with these precocious talents, may feel they are fast running out of chances to emulate the 1999 European Cup-winning team.

It can't have been easy for Best but he stepped up in front of his team, leaning on crutches, and told them that this was not the end of the journey. For so many, this is just the launching point.

As Henderson says, the next few days will hurt but there is still a trophy - the Guinness PRO14 title - there to be played for.