Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Storm the fortress: Mark Anscombe draws up Ulster battle plan to counter massive Montpellier threat

Proving ground : Montpellier's Stade Yves du Manoir

He stresses that this Saturday night in Montpellier is not a bigger challenge, but rather a different one which is to be approached without putting much relevance on anything that has happened before.

Mark Anscombe's point is valid enough particularly when last season's win over in Castres – Ulster's first Heineken success in France – is offered to him as a notion which may give his squad a psychological edge when it comes to travelling abroad.

"Sometimes it's good to get the monkey off your back," Anscombe says, referring to the 9-8 arm-wrestle at Castres last January which secured Ulster top spot in Pool Four but still didn't prove good enough to nail down a home quarter.

"But does it (winning at Castres) really mean anything now? Well not really," Anscombe (right) contends.

"We see ourselves as a good team and we know we've got to go these fortresses and when you do you've got to be able to handle it.

"If you can't then that shows that you're not exactly a bad team, but you're maybe not as good as you think you are either.

"The best teams around go to these fortresses and get results," is his assessment of what of what is required at Stade Yves du Manoir on Saturday (4.40pm).

And, whatever way you look at it, this is the sort of fearsome assignment tailor-made for good teams to overcome.

Taking on Montpellier for the first time and, having to do so on their own patch doesn't really get much tougher.

The French side – currently in second place in the Top 14 domestic championship but only on points difference from current Heineken Cup champions Toulon – are yet to be beaten at home this season.

They have a typically Gallic look to them with a gargantuan pack accompanied by game-winning half backs and frightening looking power and pace out wide.

The net result is that there will be even less wriggle room for Ulster to bring any ragged edges to their game and hope that they can get away with periods of inaccuracy, or indeed missed scoring opportunities, which have pock-marked their recent, albeit winning, performances.

"They maybe don't have the big names that Leicester have but they are a big, imposing team and if you don't get your accuracy right they can cause you a lot of damage," Anscombe says of last season's losing Heineken Cup quarter-finalists who were downed by eventual losing finalists Clermont.

"It's going to be a huge challenge and there's no secret what French teams are like on their home turf."

The odds are clearly stacked heavily against Ulster pulling off a shock victory while escaping with a losing bonus point looks, on paper, like it would be a pretty good return.

Still, Anscombe is naturally not for talking down his side's chances and, instead, has a clear enough idea as to just how the visitors can actually beat their hosts and take a massive step towards heading Pool Five in what is sure to be a dogfight to ultimately top it.

"Yes, you look at some of their tight forwards and they're massive.

"The fact is that we've played big men before and it's how you adapt and it's really important we don't get sucked into to playing their type of game. We've got to clearly know what we need to do against them and play to our strengths," the Ulster coach added.

Which leads him onto talking about Ulster's scrum which will be a sure-fire target for the juggernaut French eight and yet managed to ultimately turn the tables on Dan Cole et al in last Friday's win over the also highly rated Leicester Tigers set-piece.

"We've just to keep making sure we use our set-piece as a strength, rather than hope that it's something that comes off on the day. The fact is we're giving away a few kilograms this weekend to a massive pack, but we've got to back our technique and our ability to scrum as a unit," Anscombe explains.

So bolstering the scrum is a priority as is the fundamental need to keep hold of the ball and not end up being whistled off the park when it comes to the breakdown in both attack and defence in what will be a hostile atmosphere in Montpellier's home ground.

"Against a big team like this we've got to make sure that our discipline is good," Anscombe says before adding, "That's one thing from last weekend's game, we went into half-time with about nine penalties and 10 turnovers. If you're going to do that in a half it keeps adding to the pressure on the players and yourself."

Get all that right and Ulster will have gone some way to dictating how the game is played and if they can deploy the considerable strike power of their back three along with an accurate kick-chase game being peppered down on Montpellier from Ruan Pienaar and the in-form Paddy Jackson who will probably start as the place-kicker, then Anscombe will have assembled all the makings of getting the right result.

"We can't allow a big team to dictate the tempo of the game, we can't allow them easy exits or easy options by ill-discipline that allows them to slow it down and kick for the corners to maul us or get scrums.

"All they'll want to do is maul us and scrum us all day," he said.

All Ulster want to do is show they can fight fire with fire before storming the fortress.