Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Anscombe sure Ulster are better than last season

Sunny outlook: Mark Anscombe is optimistic about the future
Sunny outlook: Mark Anscombe is optimistic about the future

Coach Mark Anscombe will have a number of his big names available for Friday night's pre-season friendly with Leinster at Ravenhill (7.30pm).

British and Irish Lions pair Tommy Bowe and Rory Best will miss out, for although both returned to training last week following their summer exertions in Australia they will not play until round four of the RaboDirect PRO12 in which Ulster face Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill at the end of September.

Iain Henderson and Stuart Olding are due back in round two.

Craig Gilroy is back in training and Anscombe expects him to come into contention for inclusion in rounds two or three.

All the others should be available for round one.

As for this weekend's run-out against Leinster, Anscombe hopes to field two different teams in the first and second halves.

"We've identified what it is we feel we need to do better," was his response when asked where Ulster must improve if they are to build on the foundations laid last season.

"We've been putting a lot of effort into that in training. The boys are training well and adapting to a few alterations that we have to our game.

"They're progressing well and it's got to the stage now where six, seven weeks on (from the start of pre-season training) they're looking forward to a game.

"You can only do so much pre-season – I think now there's a bit of an edge to them and they're looking forward to their first hit-out on Friday night," he added.

Anscombe is happy that Ulster are strong enough to challenge on two fronts – the PRO12 series and the Heineken Cup – with one proviso, namely the avoidance of any recurrence of the sort and number of injuries which so bedeviled his side last season.

Asked about Ulster's prospects of competing in both in the season to come, he said: "To do that, you do – like all teams – need a bit of luck. That luck means you can keep a healthy squad.

"If you took out four or five of any team's top players, it would be a hell of a struggle (for them to compete).

"Wouldn't it be to Leicester, wouldn't it be to Toulon, wouldn't it be to Leinster, wouldn't it be to Munster? If you take four or five out of any of those top teams that's going to have an effect.

"Are there any guarantees that your half-a-dozen key players are going to be fit and available to you? No, not at all.

"So you hope – and you need a little bit of luck – that you have a fit and healthy squad going into big games."

The New Zealander revealed that he does not prioritise in terms of the two competitions, instead carving the season up into manageable chunks with specific goals attached to each.

"We prioritise stages of the year," he said.

"The Heineken Cup is really important and staying in the top four of the Rabo is very important as well.

"So you've got to look at the workload in the course of the year.

"You've got those three windows with November, December, and January for the Heineken and you've also got to look at how you're working in the Rabo as well. So it's a balancing act.

"At the end of the day you need to be in qualifying for (the knock-out stages in) both of them and that's where we are aim ing to be."