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Ulster Rugby under pressure to get right man

By Michael Sadlier

Nothing really should surprise us any more when it comes to the goings on at Ulster Rugby, yet this one really has thrown most a genuine curve-ball.

The rumour mill had, of course, been turning in its usual fashion with whispers afoot that Mark Anscombe was on shaky ground, but these had largely been floating about in the ether after February's one-year contract extension and had then gained rather more traction after Ulster's European exit – unlucky as it was – and then their failure to overcome Leinster (again) in May's PRO12 final.

Even so, it seemed that he would still see his contract out and especially so in the wake of David Humphreys surprisingly opting to become Gloucester's Director of Rugby only last month. Conversely, though, the shock of that exit seems to have galvanised Chief Executive Shane Logan and the professional game committee to act now rather than allow Anscombe any more time in the job, despite what his contract stated.

The feeling that the Kiwi had taken the squad as far as they were likely to go seems reasonably valid, particularly as key players have moved on and that next season's restructured European competition hardly looks too favourable. To remove him now while parachuting Ireland assistant coach Less Kiss into the mix for an unspecified interim period, well, that seems more like a simple refusal to continue working with Anscombe rather than a well-thought out plan to bring Ulster solidity and continuity in this the beginning of an undoubtedly transitional period in the squad's journey.

It seems like so long ago now when Anscombe hit the ground running back in 2012 and a re-energised Ulster swept all before them with a dazzling series of victories, along with a stunning European win at Northampton Saints – though they lost the return game at Ravenhill – before also delivering that huge result on French soil at Castres. Indeed, they also shone last season at Leicester Tigers in an epic contest as well as in Montpellier.

All very admirable, but, crucially, Anscombe couldn't deliver the consistency required in the showdown encounters. Two European exits to Saracens and then two PRO12 final reverses to his other nemesis side, Leinster.

Lack of silverware made the Kiwi – who in fairness usually spoke his mind about things – vulnerable to any heave that could come from the committee room and with Humphreys away the temptation to jettison him now, while pondering just what future coaching structure will work at Ulster, was just too tempting not to engineer.

As Anscombe knows, it's a ruthless game which takes no prisoners when it comes to matters coaching. Just ask his predecessor Brian McLaughlin.

Whether the New Zealander deserved this treatment is barely relevant.

Ulster have moved on and now need to demonstrate that their on-field form is robust enough to attract a presumably bigger name than Anscombe.

Them's the breaks.

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