Harnessing core strength the main aim for Anscombe
The steely determination coursing through Ulster right now is no accident, writes Brendan Fanning
A full house of 13,000 turned up in Ravenhill on Friday night, keen as mustard after the epic win in Montpellier last weekend, looking for their heroes to mark the return to league business with a shellacking of a team many of us had predicted will finish in the lower reaches of the table.
The complication was that Cardiff themselves had pulled off an even bigger surprise than Ulster, when beating Toulon in the Arms Park, but when you stacked these two Pro12 sides up on paper there was a yawning gap on the Welsh side of the page.
Sure enough, a powerful Ulster side wrapped up a bonus point, but it was a struggle, not helped by injuries to Rory Best and Johann Muller. The wayward goalkicking of the Paddy Jackson/Ruan Pienaar combination meant that what should have been comfortable instead was an effort, but at least they finished very strongly, which is indicative of their physical well- being.
It wasn't getting any pre-publicity on the night, but in the next couple of weeks Ulster will unveil the latest jewel in the crown that is Ravenhill. Okay, it's a gym.
This might not exactly bowl you over, but in a collision sport like rugby the quality of your strength and conditioning facility says something about who you are. Ulster have spent close on €590,000 on the equipment alone in the new gym under the Aquinas Stand.
You could say this is the culmination of a five-year plan to develop the fittest, strongest team in Europe, and to be recognised by their peers as leaders in sports science. And it goes a bit beyond shipping in huge tonnage of new weights.
Five years ago they started a longitudinal study on optimising players' careers, examining not just the game load but the intensity of those games: the metres covered, the collisions endured, the quality of the opposition and in what competition. Moreover they have a formula for success in any game which roughly equates to periods where players cover 90 metres per man per minute, averaged out over the team and depending on the position. The idea is that if you can put together sequences of three minutes at that intensity then your opposition will cough up points.
Their pre-season was geared towards building for this, using GPS systems to monitor progress, and their in-season is where they hope to make it three years running with over 50 tries in the Pro12. They topped the charts here in 2012 (with 53) and were second to Glasgow last season scoring 62 touch downs.
"Yeah, we've got some good people up here," Mark Anscombe says. "Jonny Davis and Kevin Geary, the strength and conditioning trainers, are bloody good men. They put their heart and soul into our organisation. We're lucky to have S&C coaches as good as them, and they're as good as you'll find in the game. They're passionate about what they do, and that passion and work ethic rubs off."
A year ago you would have said they were ahead of themselves on that journey. The anniversary of that stunning win over Saints in Franklins Gardens comes up in December. Coincidentally the 25-6 scoreline that night was only two points out from the one in Montpellier last weekend, and in Northampton they didn't concede a try. A week later Saints came to Ravenhill with a harder mental edge, and won. Are Ulster a different proposition now?
"Yes, most definitely," says Anscombe. "There's lots of things we've said over the last year or two about growing and all that but a lot of it can be bullshit at times too – you're finding excuses. The fact is you notice things about people as individuals and the challenge is to look inside first. The easy excuse is to look out and say we're evolving, we're learning, we're growing from this.
"There's more resolve about our guys this year. You have a bit of hurt from some experiences. We're not a young team in a lot of aspects and you get to a stage where you can ask yourself have we got as high as we can go? Have we reached our limits? And I think the fear factor of not getting there is driving our resolve."
There were shades of Operation Saints about Leicester when the Tigers came to Ravenhill for round one a couple of weeks ago. For maybe 39 of the first 40 minutes the away team were winning the collisions and making their gain lines. It can't have been comfortable up in the coaches' box.
"It wasn't a question of riding it out – it was exactly as I expected," Anscombe says. "Keep confident that we were good enough and knowing that we're going to get this kind of pressure against good teams. It doesn't come easy. If you brace yourself for a storm then you're prepared – if you're just hoping you get through then you're f****d. And I think that's the difference with us this year.
"Look, I don't know if we're going to be good enough or if we'll get there at the end of the day but there's a steely determination there and that's what you want in your guys.
"If you look at last weekend in France we stuck to what we spoke about and executed right down to the fine line. To beat Montpellier 25-8 over there? You know you might not get too many results in your year – or your life – like that so we can be pretty damn proud of it."
It will be interesting to see what kind of squad Montpellier bring to Leicester in the first of the back-to-backs in December. Ulster go into the same period knowing they need full value from their home and away games with Treviso to set them up for those final rounds in January, home to Montpellier and away to Leicester.
Qualifying from this pool would be an achievement, for the next time they come down this road they won't have Muller – he'll be on his farm in South Africa by then – and probably John Afoa, who looks like he's pointing towards home. On the tight head issue, the performance of Ricky Lutton on Friday was some consolation, and further confirmation of his promise. Even so, the clock is ticking and there is a real need to strike while their squad is at its strongest.
The coach's contract is also up at the end of the season. A Heineken Cup quarter-final and Pro12 final in his first season was a decent return. Nothing will happen until the pool phase is over in January, but if Ulster aren't preparing for the knockouts then Anscombe will feel the heat.
"I've been around this game a long time and the one thing I know is that I've learned to stop grizzling (complaining) because if I grizzle I shouldn't be in it," he says.
"It's a fickle industry. I know what faults or problems we have and wherever I am – and I'm not talking about Ulster, but any job I have – you get that everywhere you go and you've got to back yourself and know that you could be the flavour of the month or not. Everyone likes me at the moment because we won last weekend and on Friday. But in a few weeks it could be: 'Well what's happened to you?' I know what I can do and what I'm about and I don't shy away from that. I'm not a bad person and I'm not a poor coach because of one result."
You'd think they had just lost six in-a-row instead of the other way round. The new-look Ravenhill will be almost complete by the time Anscombe and his team know just where they are going. Right now, all are headed in the right direction.