Ulster coach Mark Anscombe: I've a big job to do
Hands up, I wasn't sure about the appointment of Mark Anscombe as Ulster Rugby coach. Quite a few others felt the same.
There were many questions being asked among the Ravenhill faithful about the relatively unknown 54-year-old Kiwi, controversially brought in to replace popular local man Brian McLaughlin.
Such as, who is this guy?
What will he deliver?
And, why are we recruiting him when McLaughlin guided Ulster to the Heineken Cup final? So far Anscombe, a rugged, focused character from Auckland, is answering those questions.
He's the guy who has delivered FIVE wins out of FIVE in his games as coach and, as his reaction to last Friday's 25-0 victory over Connacht in the Rabodirect Pro 12 League showed, he is demanding more and more from his players all the time. Most coaches would have been happy thumping provincial rivals and not letting them score a single point. Not Anscombe. He felt the performance could and should have been much better and wasn't afraid to let the players or supporters know it.
There's a long way to go yet, and one senses the real tests begin tomorrow night when Ulster start their Heineken Cup campaign at home to French side Castres, but right now Anscombe is doing a fine job.
He's helped, of course, by a squad containing proven world class performers Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, established stars Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Tom Court, Chris Henry and Darren Cave, daring youngsters such as Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy and a foreign legion in John Afoa, Ruan Piennar, Jared Payne and captain Johann Muller who ooze class and commitment to the cause.
Anscombe is enjoying coaching these highly respected figures and the other gifted players at Ravenhill.
Let's get it straight, Anscombe enjoys rugby full stop. He lives and breathes the game. Has done for as long as he can remember.
He says: “We come from the province of Taranaki which is a farming area in New Zealand. My dad was a very keen rugby man and my earliest memories of rugby were going to games with him. My dad used to have a van and after lunch we'd go in the van and pick up his mates at the pub and drive them to New Plymouth to watch games in the Ranfurly Shield, which was a big competition at home. I was about three or four and those are my earliest memories of rugby.
“I played from the day I was able to and have been involved in the game ever since — I played 15 years of senior rugby and was a captain for a good proportion of that. I always had an opinion and something to say so I suppose coaching followed from there.”
Anscombe was a flanker, playing around 60 first class games for his province North Harbour and spending 15 seasons with East Coast Bays on Auckland's North Shore.
So, how good was he?
He replies: “I wasn't very big for the position I played. I think I was reasonably good and was a pretty competitive character, but I knew my limitations.”
He shakes his head when I ask if he was close to an All Blacks cap.
“No, not at all. I wasn't that good,” he is honest enough to admit.
From playing he moved into coaching which included a two-year spell with Dublin club Old Wesley in the mid-90s.
He returned to New Zealand, learning his trade at various levels, with his finest hour coming last year when he coached the New Zealand under-20 team to the IRB Junior World Championship. His son Gareth was part of the squad.
Befitting a man steeped in the traditions of New Zealand rugby there is steel in Anscombe, who possesses a mighty handshake, but talk about his family and you see a softer side.
His wife Tracey is arriving in Northern Ireland next week.
He says: “She came over here for the first month and then had to go home for an operation on her eye and to sort out the kids back home.”
Those kids on the other side of the world are hairdresser Elisha (23) and 21-year-old twins Gareth and Chloe.
“I do miss them terribly. I get to see Gareth play rugby on television and we use Skype a lot. It's the first time ever we've been apart,” he says.
“It is tough but many years ago when I decided on being a professional coach I knew it could happen. I coached around the Auckland region for 10 years and the one concern I had was if I had to move somewhere it would disrupt their schooling, but I managed to stay around until our youngest were 21. Now that myself and Tracey are here with Ulster it will be good for the kids. We have put them into a flat and they are all together. I think they have relied on their mother too often and too long and it will be good for them to stand on their own two feet.”
For all the talk of independence, Anscombe says he can't wait to see them again with all likely to visit at different times in the next year.
“We're a close family. They've all been very supportive to me, you need that,” says the Kiwi, hugely proud of where he's come from and fiercely determined to take Ulster to new heights.
Mark Anscombe on...
Rugby Heroes: I'm showing my age now but my first one was Waka Nathan, a great flanker from Auckland, who played for the All Blacks in the 1960s. I would also go for another great New Zealand flanker, Ian Kirkpatrick, who captained the All Blacks. They were pretty special.
Other sporting heroes: I love to watch Test cricket. New Zealand cricket had a great era when we had Martin Crowe and Richard Hadlee playing. They were two players I always liked to see.
Coaches you admire: Graham Henry and Wayne Smith. Also Warren Gatland is doing a great job with Wales and now also has the Lions coaching job.
Coaching philosophy: People will talk about a coach's philosophies and the way they play the game, but the biggest thing is dealing with the people and the players and getting them to be accountable and take responsibility for their roles, working with them and challenging them to be better. I look back at players I have coached who have become All Blacks and I take great satisfaction out of that. I want to see players be the best they can be.
Did you go to last year’s World Cup final when New Zealand just edged out France?: I went to the final with my son Gareth and in the second half I told him I wasn't enjoying it because it was so tight and the expectation was so great. We hadn't won a World Cup since the first one (in 1987) and things had gone against us in other tournaments and I could see it happening again. It was a nervous period at the end of the match and then there was great relief when we finally won it.
Why have New Zealand only won the World Cup twice?: People talk about pressure and choking, but you have to recognise the other teams too. The one thing you have to realise about New Zealand rugby is that they are regarded as the best in the world so every time they go on the park, they get the opposition's ‘A’ game. Why will Ireland, Scotland, France and everyone else play well against the All Blacks? It's that fear of getting whipped which makes you give everything you've got. The All Blacks bring that out in every team they play against.
What’s with the ‘Cowboy’ nickname?: I was nicknamed that when I was 15. It came from my older sister's boyfriend who thought I dressed like one. I was wearing these boots with jeans and he said to me ‘Every time I see you, you look like a cowboy’ and it stuck. He was at the rugby club I went to after school and he called me it and it spread from there. More people in New Zealand rugby know me as Cowboy than my name I reckon, though only the odd person calls me it over here.