Saturday 20 January 2018

Anscombe goes west desperate to drag Ulster in right direction

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe


If there is an early theme developing in Ulster's season it is this: when something is offered to you with gift wrapping, then pull the ribbon and accept gratefully what is inside.

It is ironic that just when Ravenhill is going all glam, its residents are getting a bit ragged around the edges. Three times in the second half against Glasgow on Friday night the home team were either heading for the line or over the line only to draw a blank on each occasion.

And once Glasgow, who soaked up huge amounts of pressure over the course of 75 minutes, arrived to the last fence looking like they quite fancied jumping it and scrambling over the line, the script was written.

You could see it in the faces of the Ulster coaching team in their roomy new box in the splendid new stand. And you could pick it up from Tom Court when he arrived to a ruck five metres from the Ulster line – the last ruck of the game – and opted to tag himself unnecessarily on the side of it rather than fill the yawning gap between himself and Nick Williams. "Thanks very much", said Glasgow replacement James Eddie – game to the away team.

So, thanks to the loss in Newport last weekend, that leaves Ulster zero from two going to Galway on Saturday. The good things came in the first half where they got pace on their game without ever quite making Glasgow pay for short-staffing defensive rucks, and a few individual performances.

Like scrumhalf Ian Porter. He was replaced by Paul Marshall before the last quarter but by then he had played really well, leaving Ulster with tremendous depth at nine, where Ruan Pienaar is due back next month and Michael Heaney is also in the squad.

Unusually for a 24-year-old, this is Porter's second coming, having been forced into civvy street last year when the contract went to Heaney ahead of him. The opportunity of a six-month deal presented itself at the start of this season, however, and Porter grabbed it.

A player with a reputation for being hot or cold, he had the temperature just right here, and was at the heart of everything good that Ulster did. It will take a dramatic drop in temperature for his contract not to be extended. So too was Rob Herring very good around the park, as well as Roger Wilson in the back row. But the speed with which Ulster collapsed in the endgame is troubling for a side who started last season at the other end of the table.

"We've got to take personal responsibility for the little things that are hurting us," Mark Anscombe says. "Some guys are busting their guts and doing really well and others are making the same mistakes week after week."

Sounds like changes then for the trip to Galway on Saturday. When they went there last year Ulster were in pole position and with wins over the Dragons and that controversial victory over Leinster in the RDS in their rearview mirror, they ended up putting 34 points on Connacht in a powerful display.

They're a long way from that now, but at least Anscombe is not dealing with a Connacht side on a roll. When they calm down from the horrendous refereeing performance of Italian Claudio Blessano in Cardiff on Friday night, they'll accept that he wasn't to blame for all their ills.

It would have helped if Cardiff had been forced to play roughly 74 minutes with 14 men, and the last 10 with 13. First Bradley Davies escaped sanction altogether for an elbow to the head of Michael Swift. Davies is being cited. Then, late in the game, Andries Pretorius clothes-lined replacement Paul O'Donohoe, the sanction for which was only a penalty. By that stage Connacht were beneath water. Well, they would have been had it been the old pitch at the Arms Park instead of its synthetic replacement.

Two teams with much to do in Galway on Saturday. Whatever about Connacht, this wasn't what Ulster had planned.

Sunday Independent

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