Wounded beast a big worry for Anscombe


History has shown us that when heavyweight contenders bump into each other in the pivotal back-to-back rounds in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, it is notoriously difficult to complete a double whammy, even sometimes when winning away first. In part, this is because of the risk of complacency for the first-up winners, but it also affords beaten teams an almost unique opportunity to tap immediately into a vengeful mood.

Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe is acutely aware both of Northampton’s wounded desire for redemption as well as revenge, as well as the danger his own team might even be slightly overly satisfied with themselves after their ultra-clinical 25-6, four tries to nil win in Franklin’s Gardens.

“Oh most definitely, because that’s a common trend with most teams around the place. I’m still working with these guys and over the couple of months we’ve been together there are things we keep still finding out about each other.

“We’ve certainly addressed it, and talked about it, and hopefully we’ve said the right things or asked each other the right questions that we don’t get complacent, because it is a disease that happens to every team at some stage. You get ahead of yourself and that can very much happen if we don’t have our feet on the ground and be as hungry in ourselves, in what we set out to do, as we were last Friday.”

All over the world, in all manner of competitions, teams have great days, but not all of them back them up a week later, said Anscombe, but they happen “because of what they do the week before and the week after, and this will be a good indication to us as to where we’re at because as the season progresses you have to do things weekly, not occasionally”.

Premature praise

This they have been doing thus far, as evidenced by the only unbeaten frontline record in Europe, but Anscombe probably won’t have been thrilled to see yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph hail his team as “unbeatable” and “unstoppable”, so asking on its front, back and inside back pages: “are they the best (Ulster team) ever?”

To this somewhat premature question, Willie Anderson perhaps struck the most realistic note when observing that “the big tests still lie ahead”, while former coach Davy Haslett reckoned it was “nonsense” to realistically compare teams or players from different periods.

Such a question would be grist to Northampton’s mill too. Word has it the Franklin’s Gardens home dressingroom was replete with angry self-recrimination after last Friday night’s game and Ulster know the Saints will be smarting as well as embarking upon a win-or-bust mission.

“We also know they’ve got quality players in their team and they are going to be better for that. They are going to be more demanding of each other. They are a pretty confrontational team, and a pretty finger-pointing group, so I’m sure that their forward pack have had some thumbs pushed in their chest and challenging them during the week.

Wounded beast

“They’re going to come to Ravenhill on Saturday night a wounded beast, and they’re going to be dangerous and by all means if we’re not at the top of our game, you could see a 25-6 result reversed, and we certainly don’t want to be doing that.”

Indeed, Ulster have moved into the lead in this group, but only another win will give them some daylight. “If we don’t get the result that we seek then both Northampton and Castres come back into the competition and we then go into Christmas with anyone of three able to qualify,” noted Anscombe.

“We don’t want to be in that situation. We want to go into Christmas knowing we have a good margin in the pool, in a good position to qualify.”

It must also be a worry that their hugely influential captain, Johann Muller, will not be there to run the lineouts and restarts, which will place a big emphasis on Dan Tuohy to assume this leadership void as well as, most probably, fast-forwarding 20-year-old Iain Henderson’s first Ulster start in the secondrow.

In all of this, however, Anscombe takes great heart in the experience that still runs through the side in the likes of Rory Best, John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Tommy Bowe. Players with a half century of caps don’t achieve this “by playing well occasionally, they do it consistently, and that’s why they’ve played that many internationals”, ventured Anscombe.

“We’ve got three from Ireland with over 50 Tests, we’ve got one from South Africa with over 50 Tests, so that’s a lot of experience,” he added.

“And what experience teaches someone is how they prepare, how they look after themselves during the week and what they set themselves out to do each week. If you get players like that, that then affects the others and that brings them through, and that’s why we challenge everyone to be able to lift it to a level to improve week after week.”

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