AN 11-POINT LEAD in the RaboDirect Pro12, vanished.
A 13-game winning streak, turned to one victory from the last four.
It’s no wonder Ulster coach Mark Anscombe lets out a laugh and sits back in his chair when asked if the fortnight out of action came at the ideal moment for his team.
“Yeah, course it did. We weren’t playing our best rugby. We had a number of injuries, a number of people away so it was challenging.
“But jeez, every team goes through that over the course of the season and that was our time for it.”
The casualty list in the northern province isn’t quite as extensive Ireland’s. But having lost Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Johann Muller and latterly Nick Williams, Roger Wilson, Jared Payne and Chris Henry; any team would have reason to feel sorry for themselves.
Anscombe, however, is eager to shrug off the sympathetic questions.
“You can’t bristle with it, because other coaches will just say, ‘look’” The former Auckland Blues coach outstretches his palms as he continues. “That’s part and parcel of the game of rugby, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Though sitting calmly in Newforge with a relaxed three-day’s worth of stubble, you get the sense that Anscombe is finally beginning to feel the weight of expectancy. Not to the point that he becomes jittery – that’s not the Kiwi way – but his focus is intensifying ahead of consecutive away dates in Edinburgh, Dublin and the big clash with Saracens in London.
“We’ve got to make sure we get a couple of good victories together to get us confident and in the right mind-set to go into the Saracens game.” He says, putting important, yet limited onus on this evening’s visit to Murrayfield.
Week-to-week, there is no doubting Ulster’s commitment to getting their league progress back on track. But it’s also true that they are priming their star names for a seismic battle in Twickenham. Two competitions. And this season, in both, they have veered from the pulsating to the poor – sometimes within individual games.
Even at their peak, Anscombe’s side have appeared to be playing rope-a-dope; seemingly labouring through a portion of the game before suddenly springing back. When they click, they can shred a defence for 10-15 minutes before settling back to sustainable heart-rate.
Troughs and tempo
“We certainly don’t plan for troughs during the game – the opposition has a bit to do with that and we’ve had some good teams to play against.” Anscombe says.
“You watch the internationals and the best teams in the world; they’ll have a trough of in a game or a period where they’ll run in two or three tries, but it doesn’t go on and on.
“We do have things, like all other teams, we need to be better at: we’ve got to be more patient at times, look after possession a bit better. And there are things in our game where we look at ourselves; to be in a position to dominate, to determine the tempo of a game.
“At the end of the day, you prepare them to get a result. Sometimes we can be a bit too critical of how we achieve that result. You know, I still enjoy a win. It might not be vintage right through.”
The longing to win only grows stronger with each passing week. Chiselling out four points by whatever means possible quickly became a habit over the first half of Anscombe’s maiden season. Now though, his job is not to keep the ship steady, nor is it to turn it around, but to fire up the engines again.
“We learn from [the loss of form] and we’ll hopefully become stronger for it. The break came at a good time for us and it feels as if everyone has come back refreshed to us and looking forward to finishing off the season.”
Few would refuse a swap with Ulster’s present predicament.