You can make history, coach tells Ulster
For a coach heading into a huge match minus up to a dozen players who include his captain, a brace of British and Irish Lions and an Ireland international lock, Mark Anscombe’s mood yesterday afternoon was impressively upbeat and relaxed.
In the course of preliminary pleasantries about the previous night’s Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards gala at which Ulster were heralded as the Team of the Year, the Kiwi revealed how much he had enjoyed meeting two of this province’s rugby legends, Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson.
“I’d a great night. I said hello to Jackie Kyle and I met Mike for the first time. That meant a lot because if there are two people my old man wants to meet it’s them,” he says.
“He rates them as the two best backs he’s seen. He remembers seeing the British Lions team in New Zealand in 1950, and he’s seen the South Africans and the Lions and Australian teams from the 50s through to now and those two would be at the top of the list of backs he’s seen.”
It’s an exclusive interview and Anscombe is in the mood, smiling, laughing, joking, teasing and generally making nonsense of suggestions that he is a grump with little levity.
Even with the focus switching to the magnitude of the task Ulster face this weekend when they are required to win in France — something they have never managed in a competitive fixture — Anscombe remains laid back and positive.
The historic facts might concern a lesser man. A 35-35 draw with Toulouse in 2000 is Ulster’s best cross-Channel result, each of their other 13 visits having ended in defeat.
These are not statistics that bother him, his wholly reasonable attitude being that none of those losses were sustained on his watch.
And even though he refuses to attach much significance to the fact — given that it was a pre-season friendly rather than a competitive fixture — nevertheless it is worth pointing out that his first game as Ulster’s head coach saw his side come from behind to beat Bayonne 20-15 in early August at Parc des Sports Dauger.
In tandem with his unwillingness to burden himself with Ulster’s non-productive trips to France, he is not interested in what a win this weekend would add to his personal reputation and status.
“It’s not about me, it’s about what we achieve as a team and how we keep growing,” he says with a deep sense of the belief he has in young players such as centre Michael Allen, scrum half Michael Heaney and Chris Cochrane.
“I look at it from that point of view that it’s a challenge for us.
“We want to win to get ourselves a home quarter-final. To get that would mean us having won in France for the first time, too.
“I said to the guys today that if this group — with the injuries we’ve got — can do that, that’s something they can store away in their memory and say they were part of the team that achieved that over in France.
“That’s something you’d be pretty proud of as a young footballer. And as an older footballer later on, too, when you’re able to harp back to the good old days when you played. That’s something you could be pretty proud of.”
He is mindful of the fact that by the time the quarter-finals come round on April 5-7, his now-absent frontline troops — men of the calibre of Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Nick Williams, Luke Marshall — should be back in action.
“I know we’ve got quality there, but the fact is that these guys have got to come back. The challenge for the guys in those positions now having got these opportunities is to make it harder for them. Meanwhile we’ve got to hope that we don’t pick up other injuries,” he says.
“But all that stuff is a long way down the pathway so we’ve just got to be looking at the here and now, not getting ahead of ourselves but being realistic about where we are, keeping our feet on the ground and looking at ourselves as individuals and then at our team performance. If we keep tucking that away slowly, week by week, things will happen for us.”
A win on Saturday would take Ulster to 23 points. But with their primary objective being a home quarter-final, that total may not be enough. Saracens — under the tutelage of former Ulster coach Mark McCall — are expected to lodge a maximum five points from their home date with Edinburgh.
If so, they will have 23 points, too. And quite probably a superior tries-scored and points for and against differential, whereupon they would leapfrog over Ulster into fourth place, the home quarter-final zone.
Montpellier or Toulouse also could finish on 23.
The affable Kiwi feigns surprise. “So you’re telling me we have to get a bonus point win?” he asks.
“You’re well aware of that,” I reply.
“Yeah,” he concedes.
“But the fact is that we’ll worry about that later. We can’t go into the game thinking about other results because if we do we’ll lose the focus of our job.
“So firstly we’ll worry about winning. Then if that goes well, and we’re fortunate enough to get the bonus point, we’ll see from there.”
Big smile, warm handshake. Adieu.