Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Ulster have power to drive on

Mark Anscombe basked in the sunshine yesterday afternoon at Ulster's Newforge training base.
Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe

The late Billy Bremner of Leeds United and Scotland fame entitled his autobiography, 'You Get Nowt for Being Second'.

Fellow-Scot, the late Bill Shankly who made Liverpool a force in football, famously said: "If you are first you are first; if you are second you are nothing."

By those benchmarks, Ulster's just-ended season has been a failure. Indeed, British & Irish Lion Rory Best – how good it feels, finally to be able to write that – admitted as much in the wake of Saturday's RDS defeat by Leinster in the RaboDirect PRO12 final.

"At the start of the season we set out to try and win two competitions and we've won neither. Personally, that's a disappointment," the candid hooker said.

But trophies equals success, no trophies equals failure is too narrow a gauge.

Progress prior to prizes counts, too, surely?

Consider: in 2011-12, Ulster played 22 PRO12 games of which they lost 10. They finished sixth with 56 points, a massive 25 adrift of table-topping Leinster and were nine points shy of Glasgow who claimed the last of the top four places.

In the campaign just ended, Ulster played 24 PRO12 matches, losing five and drawing one.

They finished top of the PRO12 pile and had it been a league-proper rather than one which then – bizarrely – becomes a cup competition, they would have been champions by virtue of their 81-point tally which was three more than runners-up, Leinster, whom they beat home and away.

There can be no disputing that Mark Anscombe's side's performances and results in the PRO12 dwarf those of previous campaigns.

In 2007 the province finished fifth, in 2008 they dropped to ninth and in 2009 and again in 2010 they were eighth. And that was in the days of a 10-clubs race pre-dating the admission of the Italian franchises.

In 2011 Ulster came third, but then were trounced 18-3 by Leinster in the play-off semi-final at the RDS. In 2012 they were sixth.

Against that, they went all the way to last year's Heineken Cup final, then-coach Brian McLaughlin having opted to put all his eggs into the European basket as he knew Ulster simply did not have the squad depth to compete on two fronts.

Ulster Chief Executive Officer Shane Logan's response to 10 PRO12 defeats was: "That is not acceptable."

Thus in guiding his side to that Twickenham showpiece against Leinster on May 19, 2012, McLaughlin did so in the knowledge he would not be in that job when the new season kicked off.

Nevertheless he had put down a huge marker for his successor.

Anscombe's response to the Heineken Cup challenge issued by his predecessor was to lead Ulster to their first-ever win in the competition on French soil en route to topping their pool, another first.

Remarkably, McLaughlin's Class of 2012 had made it right the way through to the final after losing two pool-stage matches and qualifying as eighth seeds.

Their 'reward' was a trip to Limerick to face number one seeds, Munster, at Thomond Park. The 22-16 victory they recorded on April 8, 2012 instantly became the stuff of folklore.

Despite topping Pool Four by virtue of having won five of their six matches, Anscombe's side also found themselves forced to travel for their quarter-final, a 10-9 home defeat by Northampton having marred an otherwise perfect group-stage and condemned Ulster to fifth seeds status.

Saracens, who were fourth, provided the opposition at Twickenham which once again proved to be barren territory.

So, how does sixth in the PRO12 and beaten finalists in the Heineken Cup a la 2012 weigh against runners-up in the former and quarter-final stage fallers in the latter this time round? That is the question.

All things considered, Ulster have a much stronger squad now. That is a plus. In addition to top-class overseas players like Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Nick Williams, young Ulster natives like Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy, Michael Heaney, Iain Henderson, Michael Allen, Callum Black and Ricky Lutton have come through and there are others in the pipeline. It's a work in progress.

Ah, progress? How much has there been? Plenty, in Anscombe's opinion, for despite having finished the season empty-handed, he believes Ulster now are as good as Leinster who ended up with three titles –Amlin Challenge Cup, RaboDirect PRO12 and British & Irish Cup winners.

In making his case the Kiwi turned the clock back 53 weeks to last season's 42-14 Heineken Cup final pasting by Leinster at Twickenham and contrasted that with Saturday's 24-18 PRO12 play-off defeat by the same opponents on their own RDS pitch.

"I wasn't here but I've heard the guys talk about the Heineken Cup and they got cleaned out," he said after Saturday evening's defeat.

"We haven't played brilliantly, we played well in pieces.

But I think we showed that we're the equal of Leinster now," Anscombe stated.

"With the guys that I know are coming back and the injured guys who will be back next year, I take a lot of heart that we can look forward to next year as a province," the coach added.