Anscombe: Ulster must stay tops from now on
Victory over Leinster at the RDS and a bonus-point win against Newport Gwent Dragons have combined to steady the Ulster ship.
True, those successes came either side of a Heineken Cup exit at Twickenham courtesy of Saracens, spelling the end of Ulster's European aspirations for another season. But their RaboDirect PRO12 dreams are very much alive following those much-needed back-to-back triumphs.
Going into that Easter Saturday date with Leinster, Ulster's record in their previous three PRO12 outings was two away defeats by Glasgow and Edinburgh either side of a home draw with Benetton Treviso, a run which had seen them drop from first to third place in the table.
Now it's all changed, with wins in Dublin and Belfast – coupled with Glasgow going down 29-6 to Scarlets in Llanelli on Friday night – seeing Ulster regain pole position.
"We're back on top and it's important that we don't let that slip this time," coach Mark Anscombe said.
His concern is understandable for the leaders' PRO12 form since January has been up and down – played eight, won four, lost three, drawn one.
Given that they won the first 11 of this season's PRO12 fixtures before finally surrendering that unblemished record when an understrength side lost 24-10 to Munster at Thomond Park on December 29, the recent 50% success rate has sparked concern.
Now, with Friday's inter-pro against Connacht in Galway and a Ravenhill meeting with Cardiff Blues a fortnight after that (May 3), Ulster are back in charge of their own fate and odds-on for a home semi-final come play-off time.
In the aftermath of their bitterly disappointing Heineken Cup exit, Anscombe challenged his players by saying: "There's nothing we can do about that now. It's done, so we move on. Now we've got to show a little bit of steely determination about the way we want to play for the rest of the season."
That sparked exactly the reaction he had hoped to see. Just six days after their elimination from Europe, Friday night's first-half performance saw the Dragons pay the price with Ulster again producing some of their pre-Christmas form.
That display vindicated the decision to give players two days off after the pain – mental and physical – of Twickenham. Significantly, the time-out decision was taken following consultation with the senior players.
"We thought that was important. We decided collectively to give the boys a couple of days off just to let them rest and then hopefully come back refreshed for what lies ahead," the coach said.
"It's pretty simple what that is; it isn't rocket science working out what we need – win our remaining games and we have a home semi-final.
"That's what we want, a home semi.
"If we get that who knows where we could go from there?"
Clearly the prospect of playing at Ravenhill is a major motivation for Anscombe. Throughout the season the Kiwi has highlighted the role of the Ulster crowd, repeatedly acknowledging the loyalty and volume of their support.
Stressing the significance of Friday's big win over the Dragons he said: "That was really important, one to get confidence, two to get back on a winning way and give something back to the people who have supported us."
Following his paternity leave break, Anscombe's fellow-New Zealander John Afoa will be available for this weekend's trip to Galway – "he'll be with us for the rest of the season," the coach confirmed – while Andrew Trimble and Paddy Jackson are back pressing for recalls, too. The coach is happy to have them on board.
"You want a bit of competition and you've got to look at the team you're playing against and what type of players you want on the park," said Anscombe who names his extended squad at lunch-time today.