Anscombe acknowledges Saracens’ supremacy but bemoans Ulster’s rustiness
Side still to rediscover fluency of early season form
Ulster players look dejected after a Saracens’ try. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
When Ulster stormed Franklin’s Gardens with a bonus point, 25-6 win in December, they were at full strength and had won their first dozen games of the season going into the first of those back to back matches. They looked like real contenders.
A week later, Johann Muller had been ruled out for the return and Tommy Bowe stretchered off in losing 10-9. Saturday marked an impressive return for Bowe and Ulster were almost back to full strength, but the intervening injury ravaged months had taken its toll.
Nor had last week’s win in the RDS fast-tracked their readiness for an uber physical Saracens side, whose ferocity in the early collisions knocked Ulster out of their stride in an error-strewn opening from which they never truly recovered, their defensive line speed also in marked contrast to Leinster’s unusual passivity. Saracens were good, but Ulster are way better than this.
“Saracens are a very good team; too good for us today,” admitted Mark Anscombe candidly. “They stuck to their game plan they played to their strengths and we didn’t do what we set out to do and we didn’t play with the energy that we needed to, to get the result.”
Asked why this was so, the Ulster coach laughed. “I’d love to know,” he said, before adding: “Firstly I’ve got to say, I thought they were outstanding. Their defence was superb and they thoroughly deserved it. I think from our point of view we didn’t throw everything at it. Obviously as you saw out there we didn’t play to our best today. Why? I think without making excuses but reasons; we haven’t had a lot of time together as a team.”
‘Sting out of us’
“We’ve got a good team and we’ll still be a good team, I believe that. But circumstances are that we rushed guys back last week and we needed to do that to get them back for today, and collectively when you play a team as good as this you want to have three or four games under your belt and we just didn’t have that luxury. We had a tough game last week and maybe it took a little more sting out of us than we thought.”
Stuart Olding also made an impressive impact off the bench and it seemed valid to ask if Paul Marshall might have been introduced, to which Anscombe countered, “Paul is not going to win a lineout for us, Paul is not going to win the breakdown for us. They were areas they were dominating us. We weren’t getting the go forwards ball that we got last week, to be able to ask questions of the defence.”
He also suggested their self-belief had been undermined, resulting in a conservative approach at times and cited sloppy work at defensive restarts. Olding’s cameo was, worryingly, due to Luke Marshall’s game ending prematurely with what appeared to be concussion for a third match in a row.
“That’s going to put him on the sideline for a little while, unfortunately,” said Anscombe. “He is in pretty good spirits down in the shed now but we have a good medical team who will do the right thing by Luke. I can assure you that he will be assessed correctly and whatever decision comes from that we will 100 per cent support.”
Anscombe also maintained: “He was as good as a box of birds last Thursday. If he had fronted up Monday with any self doubt we would not have played him. Look, at the end of the day, you want to win these big games but first and foremost you look after the individual. I’ll never as a coach put a guy on the field that could risk his health, I can assure you of that.”
“I could start by saying that they’re probably the best team we’ve played all season,” said Mark McCall of his native province, while both Matt Stevens, especially, and Steve Borthwick nodded vigorously in agreement either side of him.
While Anscombe had disputed the theory that the Six Nations had taken too much of a toll on his squad by pointing out Saracens and most others had similar demands, McCall also noted: “We were in the fortunate position today that we had nobody in the squad unavailable for selection. Clearly you’ve got to have a bit of luck but we’ve got a good squad, we’ve got some real depth to our squad and we intend to use that depth and make sure that we arrive in the play-off games with people who are physically and mentally fresh.”
And therein, perhaps, lay the rub.