Ulster not afraid to go on the road
It still all feels a bit flat really.Yes, getting to the Heineken Cup’s knockout stages is another great achievement but what a shame that it’s now about taking on Saracens somewhere in London.
Confirmation of where the quarter-final will be played is to be firmed up some time over the next week and a considerable number of Ulster fans will certainly be eager to make this trip though a highly valued ‘home’ semi-final awaits the winner which should it be Ulster should keep them at the Aviva Stadium should they go all the way.
Not that having to leave these shores should take much of the sheen off getting through and topping their pool for the first time since Ulster lifted the trophy back in 1999, it’s just that there is more than a residue of frustration at how even managing a first competitive win on French soil still wasn’t enough to nail down the ultimate reward of a home quarter-final.
Now that the dust has settled and all the permutations have been finally worked out, Mark Anscombe’s final task, before going on a well-earned week’s break with wife Tracey, was to reflect on what has been and what is maybe to come as Ulster enter their third consecutive European quarter-final but, significantly, the first one under his watch.
The main bugbear is that the chance of a home quarter-final was lost thanks to Saracens’ expected tanking of Edinburgh on Sunday.
The real damage, though, was shipped back in December when after nailing down 14 points in their first three European outings, the 10-9 defeat to Northampton Saints — at Ravenhill of all places and a week after the magnificent annihilation of the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens — proved the undoing of their Ulster’s home quarter-final aspirations.
There’s no real avoiding it, Ulster’s first defeat of what has so far been a magnificent season for on-field achievement holed them below the waterline when it came to smoothing their path.
Anscombe, though, isn’t one for picking over the pieces and lamenting his lot.
“You could actually argue that we had the toughest pool,” he retorted.
“Northampton are fifth in the Premiership and they were then beaten by Glasgow who are second in the PRO12.
“It was a tough pool and we came out of it with five wins, so it isn’t all too bad.
Anscombe added: “We can get over critical at times but five out of six doesn’t happen too often and we are one of eight still left in the competition and there are 16 teams now not enjoying the thoughts of what a Heineken quarter-final brings to them.”
Mind you, he still has to revisit the fact that a bonus point win in France would have secured that elusive home quarter and brought Mark McCall’s Saracens across the water.
In fairness, it always looked a big ask and thanks to the injuries, conditions and a less than assured opening half from Ulster the four tries were forgotten about with just the win becoming a priority.
“Yes we had talked about it,” Anscombe says regarding the aim of getting five points.
“That was a goal we had set ourselves but we knew it was going to be a tough ask to get it.”
“But we got through and we won our pool so there are more positives than negatives.
“We got that first win in France so maybe we’ll leave a home quarter as a first for next year,” the Kiwi added.
Maybe and you sense that he is keen to park Europe as Ulster head into a fortnight’s break before returning to PRO12 League action when the Ospreys visit Ravenhill on February 8 though, in the interim, 11 squad members are spending time with Ireland.
“We have other things to do now and we won’t beat ourselves up over the challenge of Saracens because it’s two and-a-half months away.
“It will be a good battle and it won’t be too far for our supporters to go.”
“We have to be confident though,” Anscombe stated.
“The fact is we haven’t been beaten out of Ireland this year which is something we can be proud of.
“We have travelled well but we know they are a quality team and one that will be very hard to beat. The other carrot for us now is if we take Saracens we know we’re going to be in Ireland for the finals,” he added.
The coach also had words of encouragement for Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson — who are all now at the Ireland training camp – after their efforts at Castres last Saturday.
“Craig took his chance at full back and did well while Iain, I’m not convinced yet he’s a better six than lock, I think that was clearly his best performance off the bench.
“I also thought Paddy Jackson had a really good 25 minutes but he had had a couple of average games prior to that.”
Now it’s a case of refocusing and, of course, hoping there are no more injuries for those with Ireland.