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Mark Anscombe: I'll finish job I started

By Niall Crozier

So Mark Anscombe has signed a one-year contract extension which means he will be Ulster Rugby's head coach until June 2015 at least.

That is a re-run of what happened in his predecessor's reign, for in what was his second season in the job, Brian McLaughlin too was offered and accepted a 12-month extension.

Anscombe's decision to commit himself to overseeing Ulster's 2014-15 campaign is one which will resonate with almost all of the province's supporters, the view of the vast majority being that the New Zealander has continued to build on the firm foundations laid by McLaughlin.

Anscombe reflected: "I said when I started at Ulster that I believed that this would be a three-year project. We're still only half-way through it. I'm enjoying my time here.

"My focus over the next year-and-a-half will be to finish the job I've started and to bring some silverware back to Ravenhill.

"We have a home Heineken Cup quarter-final and we are competing for a play-off place in the RaboDirect PRO12 once again.

"We've had a good deal of success. We got to a final last year and a quarter-final in the other competition. I think for a union our size and our budget, that's successful. We're boxing away nicely at the moment.

"And if you look at all the competitions in France, England and the Rabo, there's not a lot of teams in contention for both competitions. We are – for the second year in a row – so you've got to be happy with that."

Confirming that he hopes to see both Neil Doak and Jonathan Bell – the backs and defence coaches he inherited when he replaced McLaughlin – remain, too, he said: "I want Jonny and Doakie to stay on, so they're just working through things at the moment."

At this point the salient questions relate to what is required of a head coach and to what extent Anscombe has lived up to those expectations?

As I see, for an Ulster coach to be regarded as a success there are four boxes he must tick. The questions requiring answers in the affirmative are:

Have results been good? Have players improved, both individually and collectively? Has there been an increase in Ulster representation at national level? Is there tangible evidence of good quality players coming through?

Results? Since Anscombe took up the reins in the summer of 2012, they certainly have been good. Ulster hit the ground running under his tutelage, witness an unprecedented 13 straight wins which saw them unbeaten from his opening fixture on August 31, 2012 through to December 15 when Northampton Saints won 10-9 in a Heineken Cup pool-stage match at Ravenhill a week after Anscombe's side had subjected the same opponents to a 25-6 whipping at Franklin's Gardens.

In his first season in charge, Ulster went from being a side which had lost 10 matches and finished sixth in the previous RaboDirect PRO 12 campaign to one which lost only four and topped the table.

Note, too, that Ulster's run included a first victory over Leinster in Dublin since 1999 and, for the first time ever, away wins over each of the four Welsh regions.

Progress? Certainly in that competition there has been, albeit that Ulster weren't quite able to finish it off, for seven weeks after that March 30 triumph over Leinster they lost to them in the RDS play-off final.

Assessing things on the European front, however, the situation is a lot less clear-cut.

Despite Ulster's disappointing PRO12 results in McLaughlin's last season in charge, he surpassed expectations by guiding the province to a Heineken Cup final showdown against Leinster at Twickenham, defying the odds by beating Munster in a truly memorable quarter-final at hitherto impregnable Thomond Park en route.

Yes, ultimately Ulster were well beaten by Joe Schmidt's Heineken Cup holders, but reaching the final had in itself been a huge achievement on the part of McLaughlin's team.

Anscombe's first attempt at trying to better it ended in disappointment. Again Ulster came unstuck at Twickenham where Saracens put paid to their hopes in last April's quarter-final.

Against that it must be remembered that Ulster topped Pool Four by virtue of having won five of their six matches, despite which they missed out on a home quarter-final.

Note, too, that their pool-stage heroics included a first ever Heineken Cup win in France – against mighty Castres Olympique who went on to win the Top 14 title.

So, in Anscombe's first season Ulster topped the PRO12 table and were beaten finalists in that competition, in addition to which they reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the third year in a row.

This year, Ulster have achieved number one seed status with a perfect played six, won six European record.

As a result, for the first time since conquering Europe in 1999, they have a home quarter-final. That's massive.

Have Ulster's players improved as individuals and as a team? Undoubtedly, yes – a fact underlined by the answer to the third question regarding increase in the province's representation at national level.

Last Saturday saw Ulster provide five of Ireland's starting XV against Scotland and two of the seven replacements. That did not include two injured Lions, Tommy Bowe and Stevie Ferris, plus a third in Tom Court who has dropped down the pecking order. And another fast-rising Ulster star, Stuart Olding, missed out through injury, while Craig Gilroy was omitted only because he requires more game-time following a lay-off.

The ages of the Ulster players on Irish duty answers the fourth question regarding evidence of top quality youngsters coming through.

Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Gilroy are 22. Olding is 20.

Now there are Ulster supporters who will point to the fact that Henderson, Jackson, Marshall and Gilroy emerged on McLaughlin's watch, leaving Anscombe the fortunate beneficiary of his predecessor's work and vision.

That said, the current incumbent certainly cannot be accused of having done anything wrong here. Yes, McLaughlin gave these players their first outings, but Anscombe has provided them with opportunities to develop. And, under him, they have.

So, too, have others like Robbie Diack, whose Ulster future prior to Anscombe's arrival was in serious doubt.

Michael Allen is another whose belief in himself has been restored, just when it looked like he might be on his way. Newcomers like Rob Herring and Sean Doyle really have prospered.

So has Anscombe earned a contract extension?

In the vernacular, that's a no-brainer.

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