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Ulster don't fear prospect of travelling to stamp title challenge, says Anscombe

By Niall Crozier

With table-topping Leinster and second-placed Glasgow Warriors nine and four points clear of them respectively, it is highly improbable that Ulster will finish in the top two of the PRO12 race.

Tonight at Ravenhill, they host last season's champions and this term's leaders in their penultimate league-series fixture before making the long trek to Limerick for the last one – a May 10 meeting with third-placed Munster.

Next week will see Leinster host Edinburgh, who have lost 13 of this season's 20 PRO12 matches to date. Glasgow's outstanding fixtures are away to Benetton Treviso and home to Zebre, the bottom two clubs.

If Ulster achieve a top four finish, a trip to Dublin, Glasgow or Limerick in the semi-final is the probable outcome.

While Anscombe conceded that playing in any of those cities would be difficult, he insisted his team will be up for the challenge.

"I can promise you that if we get a couple of our boys back and we don't get any more injuries, we won't be afraid to go to any of those places," he said.

"We've trained well and we had a good couple of days last week at Carton House, so there's a positive attitude. We've got some class players who will be taking to the field and it means something to them to be playing here.

"We don't want to go out on a whimper, we want to hold our heads up and be proud. If that's good enough to get us to the final, good. If it's not, we'll not have gone out on a whimper."

Admitting that tonight promises to be a huge test of Ulster's resources and character, he pointed to the formidable strength in depth enjoyed by opponents who beat his side 24-18 in last May's play-off final at the RDS.

"They have players of real calibre plus international-class cover for each of them – in every position. We aren't there yet in terms of being able to match that, though that is what we're working toward," he said.

Undoubtedly, Ulster too have players of genuine quality. The problem is that bar the Heineken Cup, they seldom manage to field them simultaneously.

Highlighting that fact, Anscombe said: "Know how many of our Rabo games that Rory Best has played this year? Three. Ruan Pienaar? Six. John Afoa? Eight. Chris Henry? Eight. Tommy Bowe? Eight.

"Now I know supporters become frustrated, but the biggest challenge in trying to win silverware is to have depth so that your second tier – and third tier – players are of a sufficiently good calibre to get you through when guys like those aren't available.

"People look at us and say, 'You've got Pienaar, you've got Bowe, you've got Afoa – you should be winning things'. And if we had those players all the time, they'd be right. But we don't have and that's where depth is so important.

"How many positions are we able to cover with players of the same calibre? Well, at the moment we have Callum Black and Tom Court. We can select either and it doesn't affect us too much because they're both good players. But in how many other positions can we do that?

"If we'd Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall available we'd be covered at 12. But Stuart has been out for almost the whole season. Where else? Maybe Craig Gilroy in for one of the other wingers. Nick Williams-Roger Wilson is another example. Then Dan Tuohy-Iain Henderson at lock.

"But at this stage that's about it. We've no cover at 10 if anything were to happen to Paddy Jackson. And with Rory Best having been unavailable for so much of the season, we've had to keep putting Rob Herring in to the point where he's nearly spent, although he has been outstanding for us. So this is a work in progress.

"Ireland have just named the Under-20s squad for the Junior World Championship. There are two Ulster boys in the 28. Leinster have 14."

Even so, Anscombe is up for tonight's test against the star-studded holders, Ulster's oldest rugby rivals.

"This is a derby and our guys are excited," Anscombe said. "It's going to be a full house in an outstanding stadium. The weather has been good, too, and hopefully it will continue. So everything is on for a good game of rugby, which is what you hope for."

Belfast Telegraph


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