Ulster on to a dream team with Anscombe and McLaughlin, insists Afoa
Ulster tight-head John Afoa reckons in-coming coach Mark Anscombe and the man he is succeeding could just prove to be the dream-ticket to take the Heineken Cup finalists to the next level.
In particular he believes the decision to have Brian McLaughlin working at schools' and Academy level could turn out to be an inspired decision.
Having worked with his fellow-New Zealander at Auckland, former All Black Afoa’s view of Anscombe is that he is up to the job of
building on the foundations laid down by his predecessor.
“He coached me for a year when I left school and then I had him on and off for three years at Auckland,” Afoa said. “Being involved with the All Blacks you don’t play too much for your (club) team, but you go back for the odd game so I had some involvement there.
“I think he’s a great coach. Everyone talks about Brian being such a loss, but I think Mark coming in can maybe take things on by doing some things a little bit different.
“Mark’s going to come in and hopefully add a few things that are going to improve our game, improve our forwards and help us go even better come next year.”
Coming from a background where rugby is a national obsession, where winning is the expectation and where excellence is taken as read, it is significant that Afoa is optimistic about Ulster’s progress with Anscombe as head coach and McLaughlin feeding hand-picked young players through to senior level.
He sees McLaughlin playing a crucial, pivotal role in ensuring that Ulster continue to move in the right direction.
Asked what persuades him that growth and improvement are likely, Afoa replies: “A lot of the guys in the squad at the minute have time left on their contracts so there’s going to be a few of the same faces around for a while.
“But as David (Humphreys) has said, it’s about the development in the schools and with the Academy guys, too, and having a guy like Brian looking after that means they’re going to be coming into the main squad, fully professional and up to date.”
In many ways it’s a mirror-image of what happens back in his homeland where young talent is identified early on and then nurtured right the way through until the players emerge ready and able to take their place among the very top ranks of New Zealand rugby.
“It’s disgraceful sometimes,” he jokes.
“You see these kids in the Academy, two years out of school, but they could slip into the All Blacks or play at whatever level and be able to handle themselves.
“They’re not just doing weights for the first time when they go to the Academy; they’ve been doing weights for five or six years through school. They’ve had all the training and they’ve done all the work so now they’re ready to play professional rugby.
“After that it’s just about a lucky break or finding space for them.
“But the Academy and schools are the real strengths of New Zealand rugby. In my experience, High School was the key for me.
“I played three years 1st XV in a really tough competition, which Auckland ‘A’ is so I was able to get a real grasp of the game.
“You learn about the (Auckland) team and all that kind of stuff; you learn gym-wise and sprint-wise, with people from Auckland Academy coming in as coaches.
“You got all of that through High School and I was just lucky to kick on straight away.”
Ulster is not Auckland, of course, and Afoa recognises that fact.
Acknowledging the difference he says: “At home you drive round the streets and all you see is rugby posts. I guess here you see all the soccer pitches.
“Rugby is a whole culture in New Zealand, it’s important to the whole community and in your neighbourhood.”