WITH EACH WEEK that passed after Ulster Rugby announced that Brian McLaughlin would be replaced by Mark Anscombe, the pressure mounted on the inbound coach.
McLaughlin bridged a 12-year gap by reaching the Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2011. 12 months later, he was back again to do the unthinkable – win in Thomond Park.
Anscombe’s poor track record in Auckland was his indictment. Without knowing the man, TheScore.ie questioned the wisdom of David Humphreys and waited fatalistically for an inevitable drop in standard from the Heineken Cup runners up.
This Friday night, Ulster will kick the tournament off as a pack leader. Last season’s achievement is only a part of that. The northern province are the only side in Europe’s three top league’s who have yet to lose a game – every other side in the Pro12 has been turned over at least twice.
Anscombe will not let that temporary statistic adorn his reputation for long. Instead he echoes his fellow north island Kiwi, Joe Schmidt, in placing his team’s focus on continuous improvement day-in, day-out.
Whereas most could only see backward progress from Twickenham, Anscombe has his eyes on the prize.
“Yeah, of course it is,” he happily responded when asked if silverware was his goal for the season.
Anscombe likes to talk in terms of facts, so TheScore.ie was slightly taken aback when he forthrightly underlined exactly which cups the northern province won last season. By no means does he intend to disrespect his predecessor, but this is a man who for nine months has heard nothing but talk of pressure and what a tough act McLaughlin is to follow. He’s fed up of the question, it’s time to move on.
“The thing is, wherever I’ve gone before and coached, you always put expectation on yourself, and there’s expectation from the people that employ you, to do well. So there’s no difference really.” Says Anscombe, almost concealing his irritation at the familiar question.
“In a sense we got to a final, but the brutal truth of it is we haven’t won anything yet. So the fact is: ‘How do you measure success?” He doesn’t leave time for responses from the floor.
“Success is what Leinster have done over the last couple of years: silverware, making finals consistently over a number of years. It’s the same with Munster, winning the same thing. Leicester, the same thing. Toulouse, the same thing.
“We aspire to do that. You’ve got to win things.” The sentences roll out in short-fire bursts that give a sense of the intonation during an Anscombe team talk.
“We have got to keep pushing the bar up and challenging ourselves to get better and do things better within ourselves to get there.”
Part of that ‘self-challenging’ ethos is laid bare when he is asked directly about individual players. Tommy Bowe had just made his second Ulster debut with two tries in Cardiff. Anscombe wasn’t getting carried away, he said the comeback “was fine”, adding:
“Tommy’s still a little way off I think, but he will get there. He’s a real professional in the way he goes about his work and prepares himself. Each time we can get him on the park, like a few others, he’ll benefit from the experience.”
Nick Williams has proved to be Humphreys’ other marquee signing of the summer, again his fellow Aucklander and (not for the first time) coach wanted more.
“He’s getting there.” Said Ancombe of the bulldozing number eight. “The fact is, he’s a powerful man with the ball. There are area in his game that we’ve got to keep working on – his ball retention has got to be improved on. As is his conditioning.
“But Nick’s only going to get stronger and better for the games he plays – I’ve known Nick for a while and I’ve a lot of faith in his ability and what he’s capable of doing. Balance that with some other players around him, there’s no reason why we can’t have a good season out of him.”
Anscombe quickly shelved talk of Northampton, preferring to focus on matters in hand. Castres are first in Ulster’s sights at Ravenhill this Friday. A side we have come to expect to commit less than their primary resources to European competition.
However the game unfolds, though, Ulster have proven this season they can chisel out a hard-fought result or, as the trip to Cardiff showed, run a score up when the opportunity arises. While he will be disappointed the bonus point was not taken with Connacht’s pack beaten all ends up, Anscombe has been most pleased with the grim determination his side have shown in the season so far.
Wins against Musnter and away to Ospreys don’t come easy, especially not when you trail at half time. A point which moved the Kiwi to offers up another ‘brutal truth’ about Ulster last season.
“If you look back last year, there’s only two times last season when they’ve come back from behind at half time to win. We’ve done that twice already this year – and from 10 points behind. That shows that we’re playing for 80 minutes and we’ve got a bit of character and we don’t give in.
“You can’t coach that. It shows that if we get our game right, with the right attitude – the characters we’ve got – we can be a formidable team.”