Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Panic not on agenda for Anscombe

Final act: James Eddie prepares to kick the points that beat Ulster

With two rounds of the 2013-14 RaboDirect PRO12 complete, Ulster find themselves playing catch-up. And, truth be told, in a slightly disconcerting position just a fortnight into the new campaign.

Yes, these are early days and a lot of water will flow beneath the bridge before anything is resolved in May 2014. In the circumstances, 'don't panic!' remains a wholly reasonable reaction to a couple of early setbacks in the form of defeats by Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow Warriors in the opening two matches.

Certainly that was coach Mark Anscombe's advice after Friday night's last-kick defeat by opponents who, in reality, ought to have been dead and buried in view of Ulster's almost total domination of the second half.

But Gregor Townsend's Glaswegians were not killed off and as a result of Anscombe's side's failure to put away their chances, they now find themselves trailing pace-setting Munster by eight points and four points shy of fourth place.

As things stand, last season's outstanding start – unbeaten in the PRO12 until December 29 – is becoming a fast-fading memory.

Ulster are in urgent need of a win and next time out they are away to Connacht. The Irish rivals will square up on Saturday night in Galway. The Sportsground is never an easy venue and with the westerners having made the better start, they can be forgiven for fancying their chances against last term's PRO12 table-toppers.

All of the ingredients are there, for in addition to this being an Irish inter-pro can be added the fuel provided by a pair of rival coaches from New Zealand who cannot be described as best buddies in view of some well-publicised 'history' between them dating from an earlier dispensation. I refer to Messrs Anscombe and Pat Lam.

There is a danger of the 470-mile round trip to the west ending in the completion of a hat-trick of losses and if to that you add having lost last season's play-off final to Leinster, then you are looking at four successive PRO12 defeats which would be back to that horrendous run in September/October 2011 when the Ospreys, NG Dragons, Benetton Treviso and Llanelli Scarlets in turn lowered Ulster's then-tattered colours.

As fate would have it, that dire losing sequence was broken by a much-needed victory against Connacht. Good omen? Um, we'll see.

Asked about the contrast in Ulster's starts in 2012-13 and now, Anscombe said: "It's early days and I'm not panicking about it."

That's fair enough for now, but if concern is an unreasonable response after two defeats, at what stage does it become reasonable? Three losses? Four? When is it justifiable for supporters to start feeling concerned?

Ulster skipper Johann Muller has sought to calm fears.

"We can get very negative and get down in the dumps, but that is not going to help us or achieve anything. It is very early days and that is not the way we wanted to start, but there will be a reaction from this team this week," the towering South African promised.

"If we play with the same commitment and take our opportunities there is no reason why we can't get a result in Connacht."

Muller's optimism was underwritten by Anscombe who highlighted the fact that two of Ulster's British and Irish Lions are due back the week after the trek to Galway.

"Tommy (Bowe) and Rory (Best) are just around the corner," the coach said.

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