Five games will define Ulster's season
With a 100 per cent, played 11 won 11 record-breaking start to his first season in charge, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe knows that things could not have gone better.
But now the RaboDirect PRO12 leaders are going into the most testing phase of their season to date, with five crucial fixtures in December.
The first of them is on Sunday when he takes his team to Llanelli where second-placed Scarlets await. That will be followed by away and home Heineken Cup pairings with Northampton, after which comes a brace of PRO12 inter-pro derbies against Leinster and Munster.
Between now and mid-January, Ulster’s targets are continued leadership of the PRO12 race and a place in the knock-out stages of European club rugby’s showpiece.
“We know that we’ve gone through the first stage of the season and we’re going to the second now. We know where we want to be and its importance in defining the season,” Anscombe said.
“(At the end of) This period, up until the players break for the Six Nations, we want to be still top of the Rabo and to have qualified for the Heineken, so it’s defining.
“We can either give away our position in the Rabo, fall back and not qualify, or we can do the reverse — stay at the top of it and be qualified.
“It’s not the end of the season as far as Rabo goes but it’s certainly going to be defining, by the end of it, as far as the Heineken Cup goes.”
First on the agenda is Sunday’s meeting with the Scarlets in west Wales.
“It’s going to be a tough one, we know that,” he said when asked if this is the sort of examination he would have chosen for his players five days before facing Northampton.
“Scarlets have got their internationals out still and they’ve got some outstanding backs. But they showed another side of themselves on Sunday, the way their forwards took Munster apart.
“And that’s where games are won and lost, really, because you’ve got to lay a platform and you’ve got to win your ball,” the former Auckland flanker said.
“We know we’ve got a team that can win the ball. We didn’t do it that well in Italy (against Zebre and Treviso), but we do know that with the players we have we can win our set-piece. Our challenge is to look after it when we win it.
“The two games we’ve just had haven’t been top drawer stuff and we don’t want to be going into the Heineken Cup playing like that or we won’t be getting the results we want,” he warned.
Anscombe highlighted leadership as having been a missing ingredient during November.
“The fact is that you can’t underestimate on-the-field leadership and in these games, when you’re bringing young players on, you have to have that core strength and experience around them,” he said.
But there should be no shortage of leadership on Sunday, with so many experienced players returning.
“We all know Johann (Muller) is a good captain, with a lot of experience, so he brings that,” Anscombe said. “But we are fortunate to have others, too; Dan Tuohy’s back, Rory Best, hopefully, will be back and Tommy Bowe.
“So there’s a lot of experience coming back that allows us to get that balance right.”
Their winning run means Ulster now are attracting considerable attention, both from opponents and the media who are taking notice of the growing list of victories plus the province’s representation in the autumn internationals.
Anscombe’s reply when asked if he thought Ulster have yet to receive the respect their results merit was: “I don’t care.”
But turning his attention to what opponents may feel about his side, he continued: “The fact is that I think people would be wary of us simply because we haven’t been beaten.
“I’m sure people don’t think we’re the full McCoy yet, but we don’t think we are (either).
“The fact is that we can only control what we do, we can’t control what people think about us, so we’ll just go about our work and if they don’t then hopefully they’ll be the worse for it.
“We’ve still got a long way to go and we’re not fooling ourselves, even though we haven’t been beaten, that we are where we need to be.
“But there’s still a long season and we’re working on it. I think we’re progressing as a group.”