They came to say goodbye, but Rory Best and Ulster plough on
There was some marvelling, on Premier Sport, after Ulster's 21-13 win over Connacht, that Rory Best was able to last 69 minutes in his final Belfast outing.
"Well," Ulster coach Dan McFarland dryly noted, "he's 36, not 76."
Good point from McFarland. Best is heading to pasture soon but, witnessing him in his last two Ulster outings, there is plenty of life left in him.
He started the Champions Cup quarter final loss to Leinster like a train, making a turnover, blocking down a Garry Ringrose clearance and heaving himself into breakdown after breakdown. The shame, on that breathless night, was that he had to limp off early in the battle.
He missed the next six weeks with an ankle injury but was rested and strapped up. Once Ulster extended their season by reaching the knock-out stages, Best circled in this home quarter final and had his target.
There was an errand lineout throw, and that set-piece looked shaky all evening, but Best was effective at the breakdown, carried well on a few occasions, stuck all of his tackles and was part of a dominant front row, with Eric O'Sullivan and Ross Kane.
There was another moment in the second half that showed this 36-year-old could still throw his weight around. Connacht had revived their challenge through a Bundee Aki try - secured after a Colby Fainga'a intercept - and were pressing for go ahead.
Ulster were defending in their 22 and trying to remain calm; not concede a penalty. Best spotted the Connacht ball-carrier was lacking support and went to poach. He held on long enough to secure his team the turnover. As the whistle blew and the ref's arm pointed Ulster's way, their captain was mobbed by his teammates.
Such turnovers were few and far between in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, but Best continues to produce them for an Ulster side that are much improved on recent seasons.
What makes it all the more remarkable is that this was his first competitive game since March 30. His Ulster career could have ended in the Aviva Stadium, that evening, with that Leinster victory. His teammates kept the flame alive while he recuperated and did so again, in those final 11 minutes against Connacht. Best and Ulster move on to Glasgow in a fortnight. They are not ready to say goodbye just yet.
Before he addressed the media in a post-match briefing, Darren Cave was in first. The centre is also retiring at season's end and he joked that we could all 'slide on out' before Best arrived. Cave said he was happy to go out on the coat-tails of his captain, and happier still that he got on for a cap.
Cave shook every hand in the room, on his way out, and was met by Best, who was shaking every hand on his way in. Best vowed not to talk as much as his teammate, but it's not easy to sum up a pro rugby career that is 15 years strong. He commented:
"I think we got this home quarter-final largely because of the way we played through the Six Nations which, while we do not have as many away as we would like, it is a tough time for your squad, because everyone is concentrating on international rugby, everybody is playing a bit of second fiddle, people away, people injured, we performed really well then.
"To get this game and get everyone in, it was nice to address the squad and speak a little bit on behalf of Cavey and I because I think if you had let him start we would still be there, dear knows how many anecdotes he will have at this stage, he loves a story. So, thankfully I spoke and we got through it really quickly.
"But, look, they are an amazing bunch to be around and we showed again today, at the start of the season 20-odd down against Edinburgh and 20-odd down against Scarlets and came back with draws and wins, it seems so long ago.
"And even when Connacht got within a point today, I think Ulster teams I have played in the past would have really went on to the back foot and tried to hang on, this team they pushed on and that score [was big]. In fairness to Billy Burns with that [conversion] kick... we had played a lot of rugby, he was tired that kick was really important for us to give us a bit of breathing space. I think we have a lot of character in that changing room."
Best went on to talk about how teammate Mike Lowry - his son Ben pointed - had just been born when, in 1998, he wore an Ulster jersey for the first time. That was in a schools game and further underage appearances would follow before, six years on, he made his senior debut.
At most, he has two games left for Ulster.
No matter what happens, Best's Ulster career will finish in Glasgow. He will dearly hope that he makes it past Scotstoun and to the final in Celtic Park. Hanging up that Ulster No.2 with a second league winners' medal (13 years after the last) would be a fitting way to go.