Rugby: War of attrition leaves its mark on Anscombe

By Todd Nicholls

Mark Anscombe.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Mark Anscombe. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Injuries, burn-out and juggling - those are the elements former Auckland rugby coach Mark Anscombe has to deal with most in his new role as Ulster's head coach.

Anscombe says his first nine months in charge of the Irish province has been eye-opening but incredibly rewarding. He took over in June after beating former Crusaders and Ulster hooker (and current Southern Kings coach) Matt Sexton and former Gloucester coach Dean Ryan to the role.

After coaching at ITM Cup and New Zealand under-20 level, Anscombe says taking charge of Ulster has highlighted the differences between the hemispheres.

The weather - and the style of rugby that results from it - has been well-documented. What is perhaps not as widely recognised is the gruelling nature of the various Northern competitions. Competing in two main club competitions, Ulster's best players at this time of the season juggle club and international duties. Injuries and burn-out are inevitable.

"I think we have used 47 players so far this season," Anscombe says. "Last week, we had 19 players out; the game before, we had 22 out. Five Ulster players have had ACL ligament injuries, most recently Paddy Wallace. I've never seen anything like it."

It is not just Six Nations players affected by competing interests. Halfback Ruan Pienaar's form of late has been patchy, due mainly to his back-to-back commitments with Ulster and the Springboks.

"He's magnificent when he's in form but he's played a lot of rugby," Anscombe admits. "We're talking to him about managing his workload to ensure he's at his best."

Professional rugby coaches in the North are the equivalent of sporting jugglers - working with other stakeholders (i.e. international coaches) to get the best out of their charges.

"Coaching in the ITM Cup is like being a sprinter while coaching in the Northern Hemisphere is like being a marathon runner. The demands and pressures are completely different and for coaches up here it becomes akin to a war of attrition."

There are differences between the hemispheres off the field as well. Anscombe says he has been struck by the passion of the Ulster supporters. He says the hairs on his neck collectively stand on end when his team runs on to field at Ravenhill in Belfast.

"It happens every time," he admits. "It's like nothing I have ever experienced. I didn't quite realise how passionate the Ulster fans are towards their team. We have sold out our home ground - which seats around 11,000 - every game this season."

Anscombe says his arrival was about listening and learning where improvements can be made: "You get some coaches who from day one tell everyone what they are going to do and they set about doing it. For me it was more a case of settling in and seeing for myself the set-up at Ulster and discovering areas where I felt improvements could be made."

The Irish province, beaten finalist in the Heineken Cup last season, has performed well under him. They sit on top of the Rabo PRO12 and are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. However, Ulster's recent form in the Rabo PRO12 has been scratchy, leading Anscombe to bluntly describe his side's performance at Glasgow recently as "feeble".

The reaction to Anscombe in the Irish province appears to have been largely positive thanks in large part to the side's winning record and Anscombe's astute decision to appoint local assistant coaches (and ex-Ulster players) Neil Doak and Jonny Bell.

Off the field, Anscombe and his wife have settled in Belfast well. They miss their children back in New Zealand and they are keeping a close eye on the progress of the Chiefs and their son Gareth.

"I watched the Chiefs vs Highlanders match and I was delighted for Gareth. I had no doubt he would do well at fullback."

Comfortable in the pleasant Belfast suburb of Holywood, just down the road from golfer's Rory Mcllroy's home course, Anscombe says Ulster Rugby has treated him and his wife well.

Yet after making the final of the Heineken Cup last season, Ulster fans expect Anscombe and his squad to deliver the biggest prize in European club rugby. Whether his two-year contract at Ravenhill is extended will probably depend on it.

Ulster play Saracens in the quarter-finals at Twickenham on April 6.

- Herald on Sunday

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