Belfast Telegraph

Bullish Anscombe wants Ulster to get hands on Heineken Cup

By Niall Crozier

Mark Anscombe pauses to ponder for a moment when asked: 'What have you learned from the last campaign that makes you better prepared for this one?'

The Ulster coach is on unfamiliar territory here; this is Dublin, and on this occasion, the question comes from a face in the press conference crowd with which he is not familiar.

It's part and parcel of the razzmatazz that goes with the launch of another European Cup campaign – the 19th and quite probably the last in the current format.

"It's tough and you don't get second chances," comes his reply as to what 2012-13 has taught him, his Ulster team having been eliminated in the quarter-finals after losing to Saracens at Twickenham in his first season in charge.

Now in his second, he has a better idea not only of what is required, but how to make that happen.

"You need to be performing and you've got to believe in yourself as to what you're working with," he says. "We had a good deal of success last year in our pool; it was a tough pool and we qualified top, which we hadn't done before.

"But we weren't happy with our quarter-final performance, though you've got to give credit to Saracens. They're a bloody good team and they didn't allow us to play rugby.

"We've looked at that and we're wiser for it. Sometimes you can become hungrier for it," he said, stressing a positive to the negative experience of having lost.

But he warns: "We've just got to make sure we don't look for excuses for what's gone wrong, rather than looking at how we can learn from it and actually challenge ourselves to be better.

"I think sometimes it's a fine line between feeling sorry for yourself and challenging yourself to be better, but I think we're getting to that stage."

Skipper Johann Muller echoes his coach's words about Saracens having put Ulster in a stranglehold from which they failed to escape.

Assessing what the Aviva Premiership side did in that quarter-final, he reflects: "From a defensive point of view, I thought they were outstanding on the day. They didn't allow us to play any rugby."

And the lesson?

"Looking back now, maybe we would have changed one or two little things in the way that we played. We possibly played too much rugby at the end of the first half and that probably played straight into their hands. I think our management of the game is the one thing we'd change.

"We've already done quite a lot of work on that this year. It did hurt us in the first two games this year, but since then it has been a lot better so we can take some confidence into what's coming up," he says.

With the future of the competition under serious threat as a result of the English and French clubs' insistence on changes which could damage the game in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy, Muller was asked how the players felt amid such uncertainty.

"There isn't a lot of talk between the players," he replies. "But there is one thing that stands out and it is that this is a wonderful competition. As a player you want to play against the best in the world, the best in Europe, and I think the Heineken Cup gives you that opportunity.

As a player you always want to test yourself against the best, because that is how you grow as a player and how you learn, so it would be a really sad day if you are going to miss out on that.

"For me, a foreigner who has come over here, to play in the Heineken Cup was a big driving thing – just to experience that – and I've definitely not been disappointed. It is such an unbelievable tournament and it's been a great few seasons that I've had so far, so it will be a really, really sad day if we miss out on that."

Asked about Ulster's chances of winning the competition now in comparison to when he first arrived, Muller points out: "We didn't get out of the pool stage for 12 or 13 years, but we have managed that three years in a row now. We have got to a Heineken Cup quarter-final three years in a row, a semi-final, a final."

Having earlier suggested there are 10 teams capable of winning the Heineken Cup, he is asked if they include Ulster?

"Absolutely, 100 per cent," is the instant reply. "If we don't label ourselves as one of the teams that can compete ...

"Over the last few seasons we have built a great squad. There's some real quality players and, like I've said, on any given day the bottom side in this competition can beat the top side.

"That is what makes it such a great competition; on the day, the bounce of the ball or the call of a ref can change the game completely. Sometimes you're in luck and sometimes you don't have that luck, so those are the fine margins within this game.

"But I'd definitely put ourselves among those top teams, definitely."

Belfast Telegraph

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