‘Ulster have the team to win the Heineken Cup... we just need a bit of luck’
Mark Anscombe does not flicker. There's no twitching in his face or tell-tale signs in his body language. “Yes, we can,” he says, with an air of confidence when asked point blank if Ulster can win the Heineken Cup this season.
He believes it. And he wants the players to believe it too.
The Ulster coach will break new ground tomorrow when for the first time he takes charge of a contest in the biggest club tournament in northern hemisphere rugby.
French side Castres provide the opposition in the opening group game on a night which Ulster fans hope will start a journey all the way back to the Heineken Cup decider.
It surprised many in the game last season that Ulster reached the final, only to be outclassed by Leinster once they got there.
The ambition is for Ulster to go all the way again — and lift the trophy this time.
Elaborating on his initial answer, Anscombe added: “We can win it this season because we have a good team, but we need an ounce of luck and be good enough when opportunities come our way. We also need to be smart enough to know how to play against certain opposition and believe how strong we are. I do believe we have the players to win it — though I'd add there are six to eight other teams who will also think that.”
Anscombe is more than happy to be a leader of men, but he is big on his players taking responsibility too. Having strength in depth is another key element for the Kiwi who has made an impressive start to his Ulster coaching career.
“I know what we need to do here,” he says with conviction.
“To be consistently successful you have got to have some depth. In the past you knew one team from Ulster and they were good when they were on the park, but there were big question marks when players went on international duty or there were injuries.
“You won't deliver in European rugby if you rely on a small group of players. So, when some go on international duty and there are injuries, you must have depth to handle that.
“I also want players to have accountability and feel like they are contributing. In a team game like rugby you can hide behind a result and I don't want players to do that. If they feel they are only filling in because someone is not here, they tend sometimes to play like that. I'm trying to instill in these guys if you get an opportunity, treat it like an opportunity and grasp it as you don't know where it will take you.
“We need guys to take responsibility for their performances. No matter if they are an international or a first year player, there will be no guarantees. I want to have excitement when the team is being named about who is in it and huge disappointment if players aren't selected because that means they care.”
I ask him if there is a particular brand of rugby that he wants Ulster to play.
“Everyone talks about exciting, entertaining rugby and scoring lots of tries and of course we all want to see that,” says Anscombe. “But I want our team to recognise where we are strong and play to those strengths.”
So what are Ulster's strengths?
“Well, we've got a good pack, good set piece and good outside backs so I suppose we have the ability to play attacking rugby, but we still have to be smart enough to know we can't play attacking rugby every game.
“You have to address refereeing interpretations, you have to address the strength of opposition, the conditions and other things. You have to be able to adapt to everything, so there's no surprises. I want us to be able to play well when it is a nice day or when it's a bad day or when we have internationals in the team or young players in the team. We have to be ready for whatever comes our way.”