Now not the time for Ulster to talk themselves down
Mark Anscombe knows improvement needed after performance against Montpellier
Paddy Jackson’s increased strength and confidence were evident in his display for Ulster against Montpellier last week. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
They may not carry the fearsome cargo they did when “Cockers”, “Jonno” and Lewis Moody were policing the pitch at Welford Road, dispensing a personal brand of justice, but Mark Anscombe knows Ulster are in for a Leicester welcome.
There will be more beef in the home pack as secondrow Graham Kitchener and Ed Slater return, with Logovi’i Mulipola also ready for frontrow action.
Ulster aren’t backing off from their superior position on top of the group but Anscombe knows adjustments are needed after Montpellier’s visit last Friday.
After the flawed win in Ravenhill he said the team shouldn’t go beating themselves up over a performance that was good enough to win but not pleasing to the eye. This of all weeks, they wouldn’t want to talk themselves down.
“I was getting to the fact that sometimes we speak too much and a win becomes not good enough,” says Anscombe. “The fact is, was it good enough to beat Leicester? No. Good enough to do the job at the weekend? Yes. Like all teams we’ve things to work on and improve on. We recognise that.
“We also sometimes have to step back and see that we’re tracking in the right direction. You can’t beat yourself up and say ‘that’s not good enough, that’s not good enough’. We’ve qualified for Europe and we’re five from five. You need to acknowledge some of the things you do sometimes.
“Look, we have some experience in this team and they don’t need patting on the back every two minutes to reassure them. But you need to be astute enough to get the message across.”
Iain Henderson got a run last week at lock after returning from injury and while there were a couple of concussions at prop and wing, Anscombe will have taken pride in Paddy Jackson’s kicking game.
Almost always hurried as Montpellier squeezed space, the outhalf never blinked. Tries came directly from his cross field punt to Robbie Diack, who is also in Joe Schmidt’s Irish squad, as well as two kicks from Ruan Pienaar from which he scored himself before John Afoa did in the second half.
Jackson has developed strength, timing and the confidence to take on responsibility. After the public criticism he received when Declan Kidney first drafted him into the Irish side, his current form a year on has been an articulate riposte.
On Saturday it’s likely he will play opposite Toby Flood. The outhalf is captain of Leicester but was left out of the recent England squad because of his anticipated move to France next season.
Under England policy all players who go abroad are ruled out of national consideration except in exceptional circumstances. Still Jackson’s task is considerable.
“Well, yeah, Flood is an experienced outhalf and a quality footballer and he’s their captain,” says Anscombe. “Paddy has been growing this year and you’ve seen his form over the last couple of seasons.
“He’s gained in experience and confidence and some of the cauldrons he’s been thrown into show he’s resilient and he bounces back. He takes it on the chin.
“We’re really confident about where he is at and how he’s progressing. For a man who’s only 21 or 22 years old, his progression has been pretty damn impressive.”
Leicester are Leicester and Flood aside, there is a blueprint to their game that hasn’t changed terribly much. Richard Cockerill, now director of rugby, blossomed in the heady days of pack dominance.
“They keep churning out the same type of player,” says Anscombe. “They have always had a dominant forward pack. They are made from the same mould.”
With the locks and prop returning, the get added weight but, Anscombe warns, it is not always an advantage.
“Sometimes guys coming back haven’t been playing for a while. No matter how good you are sometimes you don’t bring your “A” game if you haven’t played for five or six weeks.
“You have to get into a groove. We’ve got to win to get a home quarter-final and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t our objective from the start. We believe that if we play our game we are capable of doing that.”