Ulster Rugby coach Mark Anscombe's future hinges on Rabodirect Pro12 success
Ulster's Heineken Cup elimination at the hands of Saracens has heaped pressure on coach Mark Anscombe to win the RaboDirect PRO12 title.
Failure to progress beyond the quarter-finals in each of the past two seasons of European action, coupled with defeat by Leinster in last year's PRO12 final, means the popular New Zealander must now deliver in order to ensure a contract extension beyond June 2015, when his current deal expires.
The weight of expectation comes from Anscombe having what is by far the best Ulster squad of the professional era.
It includes World Cup winners Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa, Lions Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Tom Court, plus 11 more Ireland internationals in Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Declan Fitzpatrick and Roger Wilson.
Those players, like Anscombe, believed they would conquer Europe this season and end a trophy drought stretching back to 2006.
Expectations soared when they earned themselves a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup by virtue of having topped their pool with a perfect played six, won six record — the only side to have achieved that this season.
It was Ulster's second Ravenhill quarter-final, the first having been in 1999 when they went all the way to winning the trophy.
With history showing that home sides win 75 per cent of quarter-finals and this being the last season with Ulster for key players Muller, who is retiring, and Afoa and Court, who are departing at the end of the season, all of the ingredients appeared to be in place. In addition, star-studded Ulster had pretty much a fully-fit squad available.
But full-back Jared Payne's controversial fifth minute dismissal by French referee Jerome Garces left Anscombe's men facing too big a handicap and they lost 17-15.
Former Ulster captain and coach Mark McCall, who oversaw his native province's last trophy success (Celtic League, 2006), turned the heat up on Anscombe. As Saracens' Director of Rugby, he plotted Ulster's downfall.
And now, just when he could use a rub of the green, Anscombe has lost Pienaar (AC joint) and Best (ankle) to season-ending injuries.
In addition, Tuohy (fractured hand) and Wilson (fractured thumb) are unlikely to play any further part in the campaign. Afoa (back disc) is sidelined, too.
When Anscombe signed an Ulster contract extension at the start of February, David Humphreys, the province's Director of Rugby, said: “Over the past 18 months Ulster Rugby has made huge progress on and off the pitch. Through his coaching, knowledge of the game and experience, Mark Anscombe has taken team performance to a new level and we are delighted he has committed for a further 12 months.
“It is an exciting time to be part of Ulster Rugby. The redevelopment of Ravenhill is almost complete, we are in a home Heineken Cup quarter-final and our representation in the Ireland squad is growing.
“We believe that Mark is the right person to deliver immediate success through winning trophies and also long-term success through the development of future Ulster and Ireland players.”
“IMMEDIATE success through winning trophies”, note.
At the time, Anscombe himself told the media: “When I started at Ulster I said that I believed that this would be a three-year project. We are half way through that now. We have a home Heineken Cup quarter-final and we are competing for a play-off place in the RaboDirect PRO12 once again.
“My focus over the next year and a half will be to finish the job I have started and to bring some silverware back to Ravenhill.”
Ulster's offer and Anscombe's acceptance of a 12-month contract extension reminded many of his predecessor, Brian McLaughlin, who not only guided the province to successive Heineken Cup quarter-finals but steered them to the final.
Against that, McLaughlin's three PRO12 finishes — eighth of 10 in 2010, beaten semi-finalists in 2011 and then sixth of 12 in 2012 — were nothing like as impressive as Anscombe's runners-up last season and, as of this moment, second place.
With Ulster's remaining three matches in the PRO12 being away to fourth-placed Glasgow, home to leaders Leinster and away to third-placed Munster, that is the hardest-possible run-in. Nevertheless, Anscombe knows what his employers not only want but expect.
Failure to meet those demands will almost certainly ensure no contract extension beyond June 2015.