Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

It's going to be even harder to win league this season, says Ulster boss Anscombe

No guarantees: Chris Henry will have to stave off competition

Mark Anscombe believes the coming RaboDirect PRO12 season will be more competitive than ever, with clubs having recruited well.

"Glasgow had a big squad last year and they went really well. They've signed half-a-dozen new guys so they've probably the biggest squad in Europe now," he said.

"Leinster have a new coach (Australian Matt O'Connor) and he's going to be full of enthusiasm so the players will be, too. Matt did a great job at Leicester and he'll be raring to go."

With Leinster having lost Jonathan Sexton to Racing Metro plus Isa Nacewa to retirement and Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll now in the twilight years of their glittering careers, there are some in Dublin who have suggested that Ulster are the best-placed of the four Irish provinces.

But Anscombe is not fooled by any such blarney, citing Leinster's awesome record to support his view that they remain the team to beat.

"In the last three years they have won two Heineken Cups. Last season they won the Amlin (Challenge) and the Rabo, so while they've lost two players out of a squad of 40-something that doesn't suggest to me that there's any crisis there!" he said.

"They justify the mantle of 'best team in Ireland'; I don't think anyone could logically take that title away from them at this moment. The evidence is in the proof and the proof is in what they have done.

"We certainly haven't done that, so I don't follow the logic of anyone saying we're the best of the provinces. Hopefully we will be – that's the aim – but we're not there yet."

Nor is he putting too much emphasis on Friday night's Ravenhill date with the defending champions. That, he reminds you, is a pre-season game for which reason it would be silly to read a lot into the outcome.

"It's a warm-up match – the real tests come later – so we won't be singing from the rooftops if we beat Leinster. We won't be in the depths of despair if they beat us, either. You just have to treat this one for what it is and winning or losing a pre-season game won't prove anything."

He also expects Munster and Connacht to pose problems.

"Munster will be tougher after a year under Rob Penney. They'll be wiser, smarter about what they want to do. Connacht have recruited well and Pat Lam's is in there now so they'll be strong, too," he forecast.

"Ospreys will be tough again and Treviso are going to be a threat. They're improving all the time. The Dragons have a lot of new guys – playing them over there is going to be a real difficult first match. And Cardiff will be strong, too.

"This is a really tough competition."

Anscombe stressed in the importance of competition and honesty, saying: "Sean Doyle, who missed most of last season through injury, is charging around like a bull at the moment and that's great to see. He's going to add competition for Chris Henry.

"Roger (Wilson) is there to keep Nick (Williams) on his toes so we've guys pushing for places in that back row. That keeps players hungry and honest.

"But that's the case right through the forwards. We've got four good locks, we've got six-seven good props and we've got three or four hookers so we have options in our pack. As coaches, that's what we want – competition for places.

"As well as that the Ravens have got a real meaningful season with a dozen games, so again that's giving guys a chance to show what they can do. With that window to give guys games, that will keep honesty within the team.

"That's the big thing for us this year – honesty in our performance. We'll maybe not always give the display we want, but if we're honest in ourselves in how we go about it, that's all we can ask for."

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