Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

'Cowboy' Anscombe must keep Ulster in the saddle

Dejected Ulster players look on during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Saracens and Ulster at Twickenham Stadium on April 6, 2013
Dejected Ulster players look on during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Saracens and Ulster at Twickenham Stadium on April 6, 2013

In view of the challenge now facing him, Mark Anscombe’s nickname seems particularly appropriate right now.

Somehow ‘Cowboy’ must coax his battered, bruised and bitterly disappointed posse of Ulster players up off the dirt and persuade their aching bodies back into the saddle.

A few months ago they appeared to be on course to disprove the words of Anscombe’s predecessor, Brian McLaughlin, who warned last season that it was unrealistic for Ulster to pursue glory on two fronts. He went for bust in the big one and reached the 2012 Heineken Cup final.

This year, Ulster have tried to compete in Europe and the RaboDirect PRO12. The first avenue was shut down by Saracens on Saturday. Now everything hinges on a finishing sprint up the second.

Ulster’s form of the first five months of 2012-13 has disappeared. Since the start of February they have lost four of their seven matches and won only two, forfeiting their place in Europe and their one-time seemingly unassailable lead at the top of the PRO12 as a result.

This is the much-changed situation in which Anscombe |(pictured) must now rally his troops and raise their flagging morale. To that end, Ulster are going to have to be brutally honest with themselves and one another from here on in.

Noticeably, Cowboy declined the opportunity to dart behind a rock at Twickenham. When the coach suggested that their previous week’s exertions against Leinster — Ulster’s one outstanding performance in recent times — perhaps took more out of his players than he or they had realised, a hack responded by asking: “Do you think that the Six Nations and the amount of rugby the players have had to play has taken a toll?”

“It’s no different from Saracens,” was his immediate and impressively frank reply. “Everyone’s playing the same amount of rugby so I don’t think the toll is any different.

“The fact is that we’ve had some injuries this year. That’s life; sometimes you don’t have them as bad, but we’ve had them. But we’re not grizzling out here. We got beaten by a better team.

“Yes, we would have liked to have had a few more games together, but it wasn’t to be. That’s life. You’ve got to be ready to play in the competition, in the knock-out stages, when the dates come around.”

With Ulster now trying to salvage their season, the date coming around next is Friday, April 12 when Newport Gwent Dragons come to Ravenhill. Had Anscombe been able to hand-pick a fixture, this probably would have been his choice.

The Dragons are second-bottom, with only winless Zebre below them. With just five victories in 19 PRO12 games, they are 43 points behind second-placed Ulster. When the sides met in round seven at Rodney Parade back in late October, Ulster won 46-19, banking a maximum five points.

They could do with a similar outcome this weekend.

After Friday’s date with 11th placed Dragons, Ulster’s penultimate PRO12 league match is against Connacht who are ninth. That, however, is in Galway and the Sportsground is always a difficult venue for any visiting Irish province.

The fact that April 19 will be Eric Elwood’s final inter-pro as Connacht coach certainly will not make the task any easier.

Cardiff Blues — eighth in the table — come to Ravenhill two weeks later on May 3 and Ulster supporters will be hoping that is not their team’s final home appearance of the season; they want to return the following weekend for a home semi-final and again two weeks later for the end of season shoot-out.

With their remaining three fixtures being against teams from the bottom half of the table, Ulster can have no complaints. In addition, the other pairings mean some of their rivals are destined to lose points.

This weekend Munster — Ireland’s sole Heineken Cup survivors — host third-placed Leinster at their Limerick citadel where they could do Ulster a massive favour by beating Joe Schmidt’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finalists.

Fifth-placed Scarlets entertain table-topping Glasgow Warriors in Llanelli where something has to give.

The following weekend will see current leaders Glasgow and defending champions Ospreys square up at Scotstoun where one or other will lose ground.

And in the final round, Ospreys go to Leinster for a re-run of what has been the PRO12 final in two of the past three years.

With a first or second place finish guaranteeing a home semi-final, Ulster’s fate is in their own hands.

Ride ’em, Cowboy.

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