Anscombe looks to finish what he started with Ulster
The Ulster coach thinks defeat today would not mean an unsuccessful season for his side
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe: the 27-16 defeat to Saracens at Twickenham in April looms large over his first season in Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images
It has been a respectable opening gambit from a coach that had the spine of his team stripped away in November and again this spring.
But that’s northern hemisphere rugby Mr Anscombe.
For all the expressive rugby Ulster have produced under the Aucklander’s guidance, the 27-16 defeat to Saracens at Twickenham in April looms large over his first season in Belfast.
Ulster started with a remarkable 16-game unbeaten run, which ended on December 15th when the Northampton Saints escaped Ravenhill with a 10-9 victory. Tommy Bowe’s knee was on ice from that night until the last 22 minutes of the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
There followed a horrid February and March period, with so many frontliners – including Stephen Ferris, captain Johann Muller and Paddy Wallace – injured, Ulster lost to the Ospreys, Glasgow, Edinburgh and drew with Treviso.
However, in the middle of the malaise they beat an undermanned Leinster at the RDS. The only team to do that this season.
It matters this week. Giving up Ravenhill, due to redevelopment work, they must win a home final in enemy territory if they are to call 2012/13 a success.
“Look, I know that’s how it will be measured because that’s what it is always about. It’s about winning silverware.
“In the context of playing 30 games of rugby we’ve lost six. We won our (European) pool and were top qualifiers in the Rabo. You can’t do all that and not say you have achieved something in the course of the season.
“We’ve been consistent on two fronts and blooded a lot of guys and 20 guys have made national teams.
“It would be harsh to say defeat would mean an unsuccessful season, I would argue that.”
And so he should. But one wonders what Vern Cotter would say if ASM Clermont Auvergne failed to capture the Bouclier de Brennus.
Anscombe spoke impressively after the Saracens game. It was late Saturday night in a Twickenham corporate box, Ulster had just been rinsed and kneaded by the Saracens pack. Even Chris Ashton swan dived in their face.
They weren’t a patch on the standard set these past three years. The Nick Williams route one carry was enveloped. So was Johann Muller (who tore a bicep but soldiered on). Turnover after turnover followed.
Andrew Trimble conceded this week that they lacked a coherent game plan, never building a sufficient platform to go wide, and at pace.
They dropped a ridiculous amount of ball. A season that promised so much looked to be in ruins. Again, the fall coming at Twickenham.
Anscombe came before us and admitted his team deserved to lose. No bullsh**. Then he talked about the loss of players in international windows coupled with injuries.
The injuries have been chronic but the Six Nations break doesn’t wash. Most teams, including Saracens, must contend with that.
“The week before the Saracens game we had about four or five guys having their first game back in about five six weeks. We went into that game with six guys who hadn’t had one game of rugby in six weeks and that’s not a preparation you need to play a good team like Saracens. That’s not an excuse that’s a reality.
“I just think the game came on us two, three weeks too early.”
He would dearly love to have this week’s preparation for the Saracens game. “We’ve got no excuses, if we lose we will have been beaten by the better team.”
One significant disruption has been John Afoa travelling back and forth to New Zealand to spend time with his family.
Earlier this week Ulster signed their answer to Michael Bent from Coventry. Bronson Ross is a tighthead prop, Irish qualified and looks the part on his own YouTube reel.
“Yeah, we’re just looking at adding some depth to the position. To make sure our props are covered.”
Afoa arrived late after the 2011 World Cup due to Jerome Kaino’s wedding. Fair enough, but three long haul trips back to New Zealand this season, one for the birth of his child (days before playing well against Saracens), led to speculation in the New Zealand media that he might return to the Blues before his contract ends in July 2014.
Afoa even trained with Auckland and their coach, legendary winger John Kirwan said they would like to see the big man return.
It begged the question: will Afoa, Ricky Lutton, Declan Fitzpatrick and Ross all be with Ulster next season?
Four tightheads, that’s not bad going?
“Well, you never know. You let one go and you are down to two and then you got none.”
We move on. Joe Schmidt?
“I know Joe from back in New Zealand and have a great deal of respect for the man. He’s done a tremendous job with Leinster.
“I communicated with him two, three times when I first got here and congratulated him when he got the Irish job.
“I get on well with him so I don’t see any problem going forward.”
What was he like as a player?
“I did play against him but I can’t remember. I honestly can’t remember but we did apparently play against each other.”
No worries. Remember his progress from NZ Schools to Bay of Plenty and obviously into the Auckland Blues as backs coach?
“No, I can’t. I didn’t know Joe really until he came to the Blues. I didn’t even know what his background was until he got to Bay of Plenty job. I didn’t really know much of him to be honest.”
Not quite the week for opinions on your fellow Kiwi coach then.