Ulster facing massive task
Seriously depleted Ulster face a difficult few days ahead of Friday night's Scotstoun showdown with Glasgow Warriors.
Ravaged by injuries and international calls, Ulster continue to lead the RaboDirect PRO12 race. But coach Mark Anscombe will be up against it in trying to muster 15 up-to-scratch starters plus eight replacements for this weekend's all-important meeting with second-placed Warriors in Glasgow.
"Big week," Anscombe admitted. "Fourth time of playing Glasgow and we've won the first three. We certainly can go up there and win, there's no question about that and we'll challenge ourselves to be in the position to do that.
"But it's going to be one hell of a task. They're always hard to beat at home and if there's a form team in this competition at the moment you'd have to say it's them."
One cannot say the same of Ulster, despite the fact that they are top of the PRO12 table, seven points clear of Glasgow.
In the aftermath of Friday's 26-3 Ravenhill win against bottom of the pile Zebre, Anscombe made no attempt to hide his concern and frustration.
The New Zealander used the adjectives "poor" and "horrible" in summing up Ulster's performance against opponents who have lost each of their 21 competitive matches to date this season.
It was a indictment of his team's latest showing. So, too, was his damning follow-up: "Turning the ball over 20 times in a game is a trend and we're not getting any better at it so that's a concern."
Nor was he able to offer any good news on the possible return of a number of Ulster's absent big names in the near future. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"Unfortunately the Paynes, the Williams, the Wilsons are still a month away and Bowe and Ferris are still some way off," he revealed.
Anscombe had been disappointed in the wake of his side's error-riddled display in the previous week's home defeat by Ospreys. But with that having been Ulster's first outing in three weeks – and in the cases of Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy and Luke Marshall post-injury comeback matches – the coach made allowances.
After the Zebre game, however, there appeared to be much greater anxiety on his part. His criticism of his own team was rooted in their bad decision-making, poor ball retention and repeated turn-overs.
"You can't build pressure and put points on the board if you turn the ball over after one or two phases and we are continually doing that," an exasperated Anscombe said.
And two-try Robbie Diack echoed those concerns.
"We had 20 turn-overs which is just not acceptable," the No 8 said. "Next week we play Glasgow away from home. That's a top of the table clash so it's going to be incredibly tough and if we play like we did tonight we're just going to make life difficult for ourselves."
Underlining the fact that Zebre were able to compete because of Ulster mistakes, Diack said: "They lived off our scraps. We had good possession and we just gave it away to them."
Asked where he felt Ulster must improve, he replied: "Off-loads and just being patient with the ball. If we just hold onto that ball, take teams through a couple more phases and put the pressure on them we'd be difficult to contend with."
But coach Anscombe did manage to find a silver lining in the form shown by two of his side's youngsters.
"From a positive side, Iain Henderson is progressing in the right vein. He's getting himself a bit more involved. He's certainly becoming a good carrier and doing so many other things – the core roles – better," Anscombe enthused.
"And I thought young Stuart Olding added some zip when he came on. That was a real plus.
"Twelve seems to be a comfortable position for him; he's good on his feet and he's got good ball-skills."
Meanwhile DTH van der Merwe, yesterday committed himself to Glasgow for a further two years.
The 26-year-old Canadian, who has touched down eight times in this season's PRO12, is poised to become the Warriors' all-time leading try scorer. Already he has surpassed Thom Evans' Glasgow total for league tries and two more scores would give him an all-time club record.