Mark Anscombe can’t see history repeating itself this time for Ulster

Despite recruitment issues on the horizon, side are in better shape this year than last

 Mark Anscombe:  has to find a replacement for the departing John Afoa.  Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mark Anscombe: has to find a replacement for the departing John Afoa. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


Ulster, much like Leinster, are poised to enter the festive period with a near flawless European record. It makes the cleaning up of some obvious problems far less daunting than, say, last February.

It was at that juncture in Mark Anscombe’s first season as head coach when it all began to unravel. They look better set than Leinster to go four wins from four away to Treviso as there should be a sting in Northampton’s tail on Saturday. Despite a raft of injured backrowers, Ulster gave the Ravenhill loyalists seven tries to enjoy in round three.

All told, the collapse to Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final is something the Kiwi doesn’t envisage repeating itself in 2014. “Last year at one stage we lost 23 players between February and March so we were in a position where we have to grow depth. Take last weekend with Rob Herring and Sean Doyle making their first Heineken Cup starts.”

But there are issues that still need to be resolved. Director of rugby David Humphreys has already produced the masterstroke of keeping Ruan Pienaar in Ulster.

Recruitment issue
The same could not be done with John Afoa, off to Gloucester this summer, leaving a serious recruitment issue. To be more accurate, the process of enticing a foreign replacement for the former All Black tighthead cannot begin until the IRFU give their blessing.

If Ulster are to follow union guidelines they would turn to indigenous tightheads only next season as Munster’s BJ Botha fills the quota of one foreigner per position across the provinces.

“We are working with the Irish rugby union with what we are allowed to do as obviously there are restrictions with foreigners in certain positions . . .” said Anscombe. “If in every province there was an overseas tighthead prop it wouldn’t help the development of Irish props.”

That indicates Ricky Lutton and Declan Fitzpatrick will share the task of anchoring Ulster’s scrum, or does it?

“We are working through that at the moment,” Anscombe responded. “Deccie Fitzpatrick, you know, in the last six months has really solidified his game. You saw it at international level; when he comes off the bench for John we are very fortunate that we don’t drop our standards. Deccie has proven that off the bench in New Zealand and in November. He is growing. If we can keep him on the pitch and he stays injury free, and that has happened this year, we are going to see the best of him.”

Stephen Ferris
The interviewed veered to another player once so instrumental in so many Ulster and Ireland performances in modern times. Stephen Ferris is on a short-term contract as he endeavours to recover from a long standing ankle problem.

“He’s not close yet. I’ve just speaking to him, he was training hard in the gym and is progressing, feeling confident about his progress, which is positive but we are not talking the next couple of weeks. That’s for sure.”

Hope to get him back on the pitch at some stage? “Most definitely. High hopes.”

Another topical issue of late is the progress of Ulster’s outside centre and the debate over whether Jared Payne should see more time there. The Kiwi becomes Irish qualified in just over six months.

“What I see is a very classy footballer who can play in two positions,” said the understandably diplomatic Ulster coach. “It is a matter of where we use Jared if we have injuries . . . It’s a matter of looking at who we are playing but Jared is comfortable playing both positions.”

With Stuart Olding out with a knee injury, having impressed at fullback with Payne shifted to centre, that debate is off the table for the time being.

Medium terms problems then. Present tense Ulster are firmly on track.