Ulster still on an upward curve says coach Mark Anscombe
Province came close to European and league trophies but lack of silverware not true measure of progress made
Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe guides a squad training session at Newforge Country Club in Belfast yesterday. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho/Presseye
“We let things slip and they punished us for it,” says Mark Anscombe.
There’s an understated caution with Ulster, always has been. While players like Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Tommy Bowe can bring light even to dull wars of attrition, Ulster rarely shout from the roof tops.
The Ulster coach is speaking just days after Leicester stretched their legs in Welford Road and reaffirmed the status as the English aristocracy see it. Didn’t even throw Ulster a bone at 30-10.
But it hasn’t dulled the coach’s ambition ahead of their first RaboDirect game of the new season, against Newport on Saturday.
As Anscombe sees it, the next nine months is a blank canvas with a settled squad with more games in their legs and only a few injuries.
“There is another way to measure success and failure,” he continues, “I mean people will look at it in terms of silverware and so forth but we achieved a lot last year. We won in a lot of places we went to where we weren’t accustomed to winning.
“We’d a pretty god season. You know we only lost seven games out of 31, which isn’t a bad year, better than most.
“The fact is we need to look at where we need to grow and where we need to be strong and to dip into the squad and survive a long season we have to make sure we stay consistent.”
There were a few untidy threads at the fag end of the season that Ulster do not categorise as issues, although others may do.
All Blacks tighthead prop John Afoa returned home to New Zealand twice mid-season, initially to be with his wife for the birth of their child, while Luke Marshall was concussed three times and was withdrawn from playing for Ulster.
Siding with caution, the IRFU and Ulster medical staff also removed him from Ireland’s summer tour to the USA and Canada.
“He’s good,” says Anscombe of his exciting inside centre. “He has been involved in both of the pre-season games and has had no effects. He is training hard and working well and very much looking forward to the start of the season.”
Afoa, like most of the international contingent, is signed up with Ulster for another season, but his return to action has been delayed by surgery.
“It’s not an issue,” he says of Afoa’s returning home. “We’ve sorted out things here where we have made sure it works for both parties and John has had an operation to an injury off-season, so he is still a week or two away. But he is back training and everything is good.”
Ulster are in a good place and go into the season ranked seventh in Europe. That rightfully gives them a swagger. Anscombe believes the game time earned last year by the younger players should push them on.
The squad looks the same but with less obvious green shoots around the pitch.
“Because of our injury status last year a lot of the guys got more opportunity than they would have expected and they got a lot more games,” says anscombe.
“They are going to be better and stronger for that and it suits the squad to prepare for what is going to be a big season and a tough season.”
Last season in the Heineken Cup Ulster lost to English side Saracens 27-16 in the quarter-finals and in the “Rabo”, they beat Llanelli 28-17 in the Ravenhill semifinal play-off before losing to Leinster 18-24 in the May final at the RDS.
The season was almost spectacular and any improvement would require a trophy. But the New Zealand coach will hear no nonsense talk of what will be or won’t be considered a successful season, at least not a few days before their opening game in glamour-free Newport.
“What we want is performance each week,” the mantra is repeated. “We know the areas we must get better.
“We will look at the game, see what we can control and what we need to do and see who is available.
“If the result comes our way enjoy it rather than try to work out where we are going to be in April next year. That’s too far away.”
That’s Ulster talking.