Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Anscombe has no fear of Ulster's group of death

Captains call: Connacht's Michael Swift, Leinster's Leo Cullen, Ulster's Johann Muller and Munster's Peter O'Mahony at the launch

Despite being drawn in what is arguably the toughest group in this season's Heineken Cup, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe showed no sign of pre-tournament misgivings at yesterday's Irish launch.

He was accompanied at the Dublin ceremony in Sky Ireland's new headquarters by Ulster captain, Johann Muller, who appeared equally relaxed in dealing with the annual media scrum ahead of European club rugby's premier tournament kick-off.

Ulster are in Pool 5 where they are joined by Aviva Premiership champions Leicester Tigers, big-spending and high-flying French Top 14 outfit Montpellier, and Benetton Treviso, by far the stronger of the two Italian franchises.

Asked how he felt about the challenge of trying to qualify for the knock-out stage for the fourth year in a row, Anscombe was philosophical.

"Last year we looked at our pool and we thought we had a tough one," he said. "I think every year when you look at them they're tough; I mean, you're in Europe, you're meant to be qualifying and the the best teams are in it. I think every year you're in this competition you're in a tough pool and if you're not good enough to beat the best teams then you aren't good enough to go further."

When the question of Ulster finally delivering silverware following defeats in the 2012 Heineken Cup final and last season's RaboDirect PRO12 showdown was raised, Anscombe's response was measured.

"Have to deliver?" he repeated. "I think they have delivered. If you look at the success they've had over the past couple of years it's better than a whole lot of other teams. Not everyone can win silverware every year.

"The fact is I think we've had regular success. We've developed a hell of a lot of good young players; maybe three or four of the more promising players in Ireland are coming from Ulster, which is pleasing.

"People want to see silverware, players want silverware and that's our challenge – to keep pushing ourselves and growing ourselves to deliver on the big stage."

Muller's approach was equally stoical.

"Sometimes in life, especially in rugby, you've got to go through those tough times and through those learning processes," he said.

"The Leinsters and the Munsters who have been really successful in this competition played in a couple of finals and semi-finals before they had the opportunity to hold that trophy.

"I think that's exactly where we are. We're basically still learning. Yes, the past three seasons have seen great improvement, but I think we'd be the first to put our hand up and say we're still far from where we want to be, which is winners of this competition.

"It's such a great competition – so competitive. There's eight or 10 sides that could win this competition any given day and as long as you put yourself in those positions – in play-offs, in semi-finals, in finals – it's so close that anyone can win on the day.

"So long as we put ourselves in those positions, who knows? Maybe Lady Luck will come our way very soon."

Anscombe lauded his players' work ahead of the Heineken Cup.

"I think we have been training better this year; there's a lot more of an edge about our guys at training this year than there was last year," he said.

And he highlighted the importance of key players being available at the right moments. Ruan Pienaar – the most vital cog in the Ulster engine – is a case in point. He is due back from the Four Nations Championships on Monday.

Having been on duty for the Springboks, he has yet to play for Ulster this season and fingers here are crossed that he comes through Saturday's championship decider against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.

"We'll see how he gets over this weekend," Anscombe smiled when asked about Pienaar's availability to face Leicester on October 11.

"It's the same time as he got back last year – he joined us the week we played Castres, so the same applies. He'll be arriving and we'll assess how he fronts up, see if he gets on the park and how he fronts up against the ABs. Hopefully no damage is done."

Admitting he would like to see his fellow-countrymen beat the Boks "from a selfish point of view" Anscombe was quick to add: "If Ruan comes back fresh and fit, good. We certainly don't want him to get on and take a few knocks to put him out of rugby for a while."

Underlining the importance of having front-line performers ready come Heineken Cup time, he said: "The key is that you want you want to get your team to peak at certain times of the year because you're not going to maintain that for 35 weeks of the year.

"In the last couple of weeks we've been playing some reasonable rugby so I think we're gaining momentum at the right time."

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