With just a week to go until the start of Ulster’s season-proper, coach Mark Anscombe is looking forward to the challenges now steaming towards him.
Already he has had to deal with one or two off-field tests of his mental strength. Now come those of an on-field variety.
Settling into his new environment has not been altogether problem-free.
His Cardiff-born wife Tracy is back in New Zealand where she has undergone an eye operation. He’s not quite sure when she will be able to re-join him.
“Hopefully pretty soon,” is all he can offer.
Initially they were in temporary accommodation but having managed to find “a nice home in Holywood”, at least that problem has been solved.
He is away from his three children, too – Lisa, (23) and twins Gareth and Chloe (21).
It is against that background that he has been trying to get to know his new work colleagues, come to terms with who does what, meet the players he has inherited, determine their personalities, strengths and weaknesses as people, assess their abilities from a playing perspective and deal with the media whose job is to get to know him as quickly and thoroughly as possible, both as a coach and as a man.
In addition, he has had to make time to meet Ulster supporters, as well as finding out a little about the country which will be ‘home’ for at least two years.
In the midst of all that, there is the matter of preparing the team for action so that when the curtain goes up on the RaboDirect PRO12 next Friday night, Ulster will be ready.
If Anscombe has any anxiety about trying to juggle so many plates, it doesn’t show. He comes across as a focused, confident, self-assured 54-year-old. Thus far he has talked a very good game.
A flanker in his playing days, “I made about 60 appearances for my province”, is how he describes his playing career. As a coach – he has worked at professional level for 12 years — his biggest claim to fame is having guided New Zealand’s coming generation of superstars to the Junior World Championship in 2011. Son Gareth was that Under-20s side’s fly-half.
His work and success at that level have taught him much about dealing with the cream of young rugby players and Ulster’s need to develop in that area was central in the decision to have Allen Clarke, Brian McLaughlin and Gary Longwell working in unison towards developing the next batch of starlets.
If Ulster are to compete on the Heineken Cup and PRO12 fronts – and chief executive Shane Logan has made it plain that is his expectation — Anscombe knows he cannot rely on his international players.
The three-match Guinness Autumn Series and the five-game RBS 6Nations Championship, coupled with the camps relating to those eight international fixtures, plus the IRFU’s strict Player Management Programme, mean Ulster’s big-hitters aren’t going to be available for big chunks of the season.
So Anscombe is dependent on others and since coming to these shores he has spent much of his time making those players aware of that fact. They are key in his plans and he needs them to grasp their importance.
In his words: “These young players aren’t just fillers; they aren’t here to make up the numbers when other guys aren’t available.”
Conversely, available-again international-class players have been told that they need not expect to walk straight back into the Ulster side in which others have done well in their absence.
Anscombe is adamant on that one.
“If I leave that young guy out, he’s going to come to me and ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’
“If I say, ‘Nothing’, his next question is going to be, ‘The guy who’s taking my place, what did he do right?’ And from an Ulster point of view, the answer to that question is ‘Nothing, because he wasn’t here’.
“So I’ve got to be consistent in dealing with all of the players, whoever they are,” he reasons. “I want the international guys to know that they’re under pressure because, while they’ve been away, a good young player has come in and has done really well in their position.”
He is blunt in spelling out his position. Three things stand out: consistency is the single-most important ingredient for success; complacency won’t be permitted; everybody is accountable for themselves.
That is the Gospel of Mark and provided those elements are in place, he believes he can help take Ulster forward.
“You make sure you’re working for players to achieve their full potential; that’s what a coach’s job is all about,” Anscombe says.