Anscombe delighted by selection headache
Published 05/12/2012 | 05:00
Whether Mark Anscombe's honeymoon period in charge of Ulster extends beyond Christmas depends on the next fortnight of Heineken Cup action.
Despite compiling a mightily impressive unbeaten run in the Pro12, the Kiwi was ostensibly drafted in to build upon last season's run to the European Cup final in Twickenham.
After cultivating a pleasing playing style and a healthy development in a hitherto closeted Ulster first team, his decision-making over the next two weeks will be just as vital as the choices made by his players on the field against Northampton.
"At the minute we appear to be in a good place with only two front-line players not fit for selection," says the Ulster coach, in reference to the embarrassment of riches at his disposal, notwithstanding the absence of Stephen Ferris.
Throughout the park, there is a surfeit of difficult selection choices to be made, a sea change in attitude since the remarkable day in Thomond Park last April when the same XV started and finished the quarter-final win against Munster.
Craig Gilroy or Andrew Trimble? Darren Cave or Luke Marshall? Tom Court or Callum Black? Nick Williams or Iain Henderson? Every decision is freighted with significance.
"This is what a coach wants," enthuses Anscombe. "We talk about players performing and forcing our hands for selection, which in turn makes it easy for us.
"There were some tough decisions to make this week. Players have already been told who is playing, and the ones that have missed out have been outstandingly positive. In order to survive you need good internal competition through a long season. You certainly cannot survive on 15 players alone."
The coach has played down the significance of the five-day turnaround, for which Pro12 organisers could be accused of hampering one of their prime contenders for European honours.
"It's tough," admits Anscombe. "But we have known about it for some time so there are no excuses.
"The boys were back on duty on Monday, despite a problem with a delayed flight back home (from Wales). I didn't hear any gripes since, despite some of the lads not getting to their beds by three in the morning. To me, that shows the guys are focused on the job in hand."
Ireland's Springbok tormentor-in-chief, Ruan Pienaar, openside Chris Henry and full-back Jared Payne are among those returning to the squad.
Paddy Wallace and Nick Williams are also back in after missing Sunday's Pro12 win over the Scarlets, as are Rory Best and Johann Muller, who returned from lengthy absences in that game.
Ferris and Declan Fitzpatrick, along with squad members Adam Macklin and Lewis Stevenson, remain the only injury absentees.
Ulster lead the Pool 4 table by three points from Northampton who need to win Friday's game to avoid early elimination for the second successive year.
"We just now need to get some continuity in the team and combinations working again," adds Anscombe. "There is a lot of experience there, and I'm confident that those experienced players will be able show how quickly they can get up and running again.
"The boys are in extremely good spirits, but we have a different type of challenge on Friday. We need to forget about what our track record is this year. Now it's all about the performance at Franklin's Gardens."