Belfast Telegraph

Only Ulster's best will be enough, admits Anscombe

By Niall Crozier

Mark Anscombe's one-word reply when asked how he is feeling about this weekend's Heineken Cup showdown with star-studded Saracens was, "Excited".

As a New Zealander in his first season as a coach in northern hemisphere rugby's biggest club competition, the prospect of his side going head-to-head against the best team in England – at Twickenham for good measure – is a dream come true.

Saturday's 6.30pm kick-off cannot come quickly enough for him.

"We're playing in the quarter-final of a great competition, at one of the best grounds in world rugby, against the side leading the Aviva Premiership and there's going to be a big crowd. It doesn't get any better than that," he says.

"At club level this is as good as it gets. Yes, it's going to be a huge test, but that's the exciting part of it. That's what you want, this is the sort of match you're working towards all the time. If you want to know how good you are, you need to be challenged. So you want to be tested."

Listing the reasons for Saturday's opponents' success Anscombe shows the utmost respect for Saracens.

"They play to their strengths," is the starting point in his assessment.

"They've a good pack who give them good possession, they're strong defensively, they pose threats, they're disciplined and they play in the right parts of the park," he says.

"They are a formidable team who strangle opponents. They don't give away too many opportunities so you don't see a lot of tries being scored against them. If you're going to get any, you're going to have to work hard.

"Like I say, it's going to be a big test for us."

In addition to their own rigid discipline, Saracens are ruthless in their punishment of opponents who are careless in that respect. England fly-half Owen Farrell is deadly accurate off the tee, a point Anscombe stresses in saying: "They don't come any better, do they?

"We can't be giving away penalties. We gave away a few at the weekend (against Leinster) though I thought some of those given against us at the breakdown were 50-50, marginal, and hopefully that won't be the case this time.

"Hopefully we'll have learned from that, hopefully we keep our discipline and stay on our feet."

He knows success or failure is likely to come right down to minutiae with the side getting the detail right emerging triumphant.

"It's a game that will be won by the smallest of margins," he forecasts. "That means making good decisions under pressure. That's what good players do, that's what marks them out. So that's going to be our test – can we get it right when we're under pressure?"

Rhetorical question? You decide.

In view of the injuries to have afflicted Ulster this season, it says much for their character and the ability of their second – and sometimes third – choice players in stepping up, that they are right in the mix for prizes in two races going into the closing furlongs.

Anscombe admits that there were moments when he worried about his players' ability to keep going in the face of such adversity.

Now, with the season into the stage that matters, that worry has given way to relief on seeing missing stars return.

"When you go through them, it's quite a list.

"Sometimes you wondered if you were ever going to have them back again," he reveals. "So it's nice to have them back together."

There is an admission, however, that Anscombe would prefer to have had another week in which to prepare to face Saracens.

"That said, he is not complaining; he accepts that this is not an ideal world.

"Last weekend (against Leinster) there were three or four who were having their first game after injury and three or four others would had only had 40 (minutes)," he reminds you.

"We'd still like to have had another game under our belt, but it is what it is. We're just going to have to dig deep and the things that came out on Saturday – the character, the discipline, the decisions under pressure – are going to have to be there again."

Pragmatist that he is, Anscombe stresses that past big victories are irrelevant this weekend.

Having been up other mountains counts only in terms of the experience gathered as a result of climbing; this, though, is a fresh peak to be scaled.

"We beat Northampton over there and we've beaten Leinster twice this season, but this is a different challenge against a different team with a great track record," he says.

"They're winning the Aviva (Premiership) comfortably and they're a squad with a lot of depth with quality, international players right across the park.

"So we have to be at our best, no doubt about that. But if we are, we have a chance."

Belfast Telegraph


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