Ulster coach: I'm not interested in short-term fixes
As the new rugby season looms, Niall Crozier talks to Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe about the lessons learned last time out... and his hopes for this campaign
Had the competition rules been the same as was the case up until 2010, Ulster would have been crowned RaboDirect PRO12 champions at the end of last season.
However, the introduction of play-off format cost the province the title that would have been theirs under the former first-past-the-post system.
Instead the accolade went to Leinster who, despite having finished runners-up in the race – three points behind Ulster to whom they lost home and away in the league – won the play-off final by a 24-18 margin at the RDS.
That fact, coupled with his side's Heineken Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Northampton Saints, saw Ulster coach Mark Anscombe finish his first season with no silverware to show for 10 months of usually-efficient and sometimes-excellent rugby.
That empty-handed conclusion to the campaign simply served to prove that gauging success simply in terms of trophies won is too crude a measure of success for it would indeed be a difficult to argue that 2012-13 was a failure for Ulster. There is a bigger picture to be viewed; there are questions other than 'What did you win?' to be asked. Certainly that is how Anscombe sees it.
Now, cynics will of course stress that the New Zealander has a vested interest in making that point and with his being the neck on the block there can be no disputing their logic. After all, as a man whose job is such that, ultimately, he will sink or swim dependent on his team's results, Anscombe is not going to be the Kiwi turkey voting for Christmas.
On the eve of his second campaign at the helm he is hoping that the lessons he learned in the course of the first – some of them painful –will stand him in good stead this time round. There are no rash promises, note.
"In some ways last year I was pretty happy," he says. "We had 23 wins and only seven losses. We qualified first in our pool in the Heineken Cup, we qualified first in the Rabo and the last time Ulster won that championship (2006) was under that format.
"We won the right to a home final but couldn't stage it, so we went to the toughest team in the league and played them at their home, which didn't help.
"Last year we maybe talked too much about silverware. This season, I think, we've got to be a bit more pragmatic about what we need to achieve. Because we did well – and have done well over the past couple of years – expectations rise. That's life and you've got to take that and accept what the responsibility is.
"But you're not going to maintain consistency and be a top performer if you look at short fixes. You've got to be looking at the bigger picture of development, building the depth of your squad and their knowledge and managing expectations within the group.
"At one stage last year we had 22 guys out injured or unavailable, so we used 48 players. To have achieved what we did with the number of injuries we had is a credit to the people who were here. We achieved a lot and we shouldn't lose sight of that."
Competing on the domestic and European fronts, catering with the inevitability of injuries and accommodating international demands is a tricky business. While Anscombe does not complain about such things, nevertheless he reminds you of the reality imposed by them.
"The fact is that in Ireland we're only allowed five overseas players and one of them is a 'project', so you've got to survive on the depth you can call on," he points out.
"We've got some good young kids coming through – the Stuart Oldings, the Chris Farrells, the Paddy Jacksons, the Iain Hendersons, the Craig Gilroys and now Kyle McCall's training well – but we've got to keep maintaining that and growing it."
Underlining the unpredictability of it all, he highlighted what happened at number 12 last season.
"Last year we started with Paddy Wallace, Luke Marshall and Nevin (Spence) as our potential number 12s," he says.
Spence died in a tragic accident, Wallace and Marshall were injured in the second half of the season. Enter Stuart Olding.
"Stuart was a bit like Peter Nelson in that our intention had been to get him trained up, give him a few games off the bench to get some experience and hopefully get him ready for this year," the coach points out. "As it turned out he had 15 games for us and ended up touring with the national team," he adds.
"So things can change rapidly and move on so you have to adapt to what's happening.
"I've just seen a website about the top 10 earners in rugby in Europe and about five of them are from the same club (Toulon). Now we're expected to beat those guys and so we should believe we can do that, but the thing you've got to realise is that the playing field isn't always the same for everybody. I'm not saying that we shouldn't expect not to be able to do good things, but you have to keep it in perspective."