Mark Anscombe: Ulster, here I come
Ulster's new head coach Mark Anscombe cannot wait to get started to the job of making the Ravenhill boys the best club side in the world.
That’s the target set by Ulster Rugby’s Chief Executive Officer, Shane Logan, and “excited” and “impressed” were two of the upbeat words Anscombe used in describing his emotions at having just put pen to paper on a 24-month contract which weds him to Ulster until June 2014.
The 54-year-old, who guided New Zealand’s Under 20s to the 2011 IRB Junior World Cup and has just finished a three-year term as head coach of the Auckland ITM Cup side, made no attempt to hide his pleasure at having landed the Ulster job.
He said: “I’ve been keeping an eye on Ulster for a while now and I’m very impressed with the plans and what’s happening. I’ve very excited about the prospect at being involved in that.”
Admitting that the task of taking Ulster to the next level will be a big test of his mettle, he said: “It goes without saying that the job will present me with an exciting challenge.
“Ulster have been developing over the past few years.
“They’ve had some new players come into the squad, so the foundations are there.”
“But there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of moving on to the next stage and that will be a challenge for me and for all of us.”
Two of those to whom he will look in attempting to meet that challenge are fellow-Kiwis John Afoa and Jared Payne. Anscombe worked with both at Auckland whom they left to join Ulster last summer.
“They’re both good men with a lot to offer,” said the coach who clearly is delighted at the prospect of renewing his working relationship with the pair, Afoa having collected a World Cup winner’s medal in the interim.
The coach knows the New Zealand tight-head has made a huge impact since first donning the white number three jersey in October.
“In the short time that John has been at Ulster he’s already impressed the rugby public there,” Anscombe pointed out.
And he believes that but for rupturing his Achilles tendon in what was only his third appearance for the province, Payne too already would be an established favourite with the Ravenhill faithful. “Jared was very unfortunate with the Achilles injury but I’m sure if he had remained fit they would have been singing his praises also,” he said.
Anscombe, whose first challenge will be to instill New Zealand’s winning mentality at Newforge and Ravenhill, lauded Ulster’s progress in recent seasons, in particular pointing to the personnel appointed during David Humphreys’s watch as Director of Rugby.
“David has recruited well so far,” Anscombe said. “He has brought in quality people and I’m looking forward to working with them.”
Humphreys, in turn, spoke of his delight at having secured the services of a head coach he acknowledged as having “the experience, ability and knowledge to build on the success of the last two years”.
“It has been a long and detailed process but we’re now delighted to confirm that Mark will be joining us next season,” Humphreys said.
“We all believe that he has the experience, ability and knowledge to build on the success of the last two years. We were all very impressed with Mark during the interview process; he knows what it takes to get the best out of players and has an in-depth understanding of the game. He has strong leadership qualities and will challenge both the players and staff in ways some of them haven’t been challenged before.
“As well as (being) an experienced head coach, he is a high quality technical forwards coach with a proven track record of delivering competitive, physical forward packs. He will be instrumental in developing some of the young forwards already in our system to ensure they become key players for both Ulster and Ireland.”
Anscombe (54), who is married with three children, will arrive in Belfast on June 1.
Meanwhile as one man prepares to arrives another is taking his leave from Ravenhill.
Ian Whitten is on his way. The centre/wing, who won two Irish caps in the summer of 1999 and has made 61 Ulster appearances — 16 of them this season — is joining Aviva Premiership club, Exeter Chiefs.
“Obviously I’m delighted with the move; it’s going to be a new challenge in a tough environment for me, but it’s one I am very much looking forward to,” said the 24-year-old after travelling to the south-west.
“I was very impressed with the facilities at Exeter when I came over and also by all the people who seemed very friendly and made me feel very welcome.
“Testing myself in the Premiership is going to be great because it’s a very tough league and every week the challenge is there for you to take on.
“It is always sad to move on from a club, especially because I’ve had a lot of good times at Ulster. But I see this as a new chapter for me in my career and I want to try something different. You can see Exeter are a club with real ambition and are moving in the right direction.”
Whitten may not be the only indigenous Ulster player moving on. Willie Faloon may be on his way to Connacht.