It’s Christmas week but there is no let-up around Ulster’s training bases at Newforge and Jordanstown as Mark Anscombe plots his next challenge in trying to get the better of Munster on Saturday in his side’s final game of 2012 (kick-off 5.30pm).
With Ulster still leading the PRO12 League by a nine-point margin and also a good 15 points ahead of fourth-placed Glasgow, Anscombe’s squad are looking, as Leinster coach Joe Schmidt admitted, in pretty good shape to cement a top four place and a potential home semi-final to boot.
But Munster at Thomond Park is never going to be anything other than a arm-wrestle of an encounter even though both sides are expecting to be somewhat less than at full strength due to the Ireland management programme and this week’s squad get-together.
As ever, it’s a challenging time for Anscombe as he also weighs up the need to rest certain players ahead of the all-important pool-deciding fortnight of European action in January which is to come after next Friday’s PRO12 meeting with currently second-placed Scarlets at Ravenhill.
“You know, I suppose it’s the sort of challenge we all face as coaches, how do we keep your team on their toes and keep them consistent?”
“It’s challenging and that’s what it is, but we’re not fooled by the fact,” Anscombe (below) said while also adding, presumably tongue-in-cheek, that there are nights he doesn’t sleep for the demands of it all.
“We’ve had a good result (against Leinster) and a not so good one before that and, look, that will happen again during the course of the season.
“It’s really all about how we bounce back and respond and challenge ourselves to grow as a unit.”
As for specifics regarding the Munster game — when Ulster will be looking to do the double on Rob Penney’s squad after just beating them by one point, 20-19, back in September — Anscombe admitted it would be a changed side that goes down to Limerick.
“We’re assessing things,” he said, “but we’ve got to, obviously, give some guys some rest.
“So we’re addressing that and the fact that the Irish team are in camp as well.
“We’ve got a plan of what we want to do but we’ll see how it all pans out.”
One thing is certain, though, and that is that Ulster are keeping their feet firmly on the ground, despite having suffered only one defeat in 15 games.
There is no sense that after having got the better of Leinster, who for the last few seasons have been the rightly accepted top dogs in Ireland, it means that Ulster have an irresistible tide flowing with them.
Only being there at the season’s end — with silverware in the bag — will mean that Ulster can start accepting that their rise has been of significance.
Being the top team in Ireland is certainly more than just an aspiration now, but being the leading side in Europe, well, that is a road which is yet to be travelled.
“We’ve a long way to prove that we’re the top team in Ireland,” Luke Marshall said in the afterglow of beating Leinster last week.
“Just because we’re top of the table mid-season means nothing.
“In the past few seasons we have been jealous of Leinster. We’ve used them as the team we aspire to be and we’ve still got a long way to go to emulate their achievements,” Marshall added.