Anscombe hails grieving Ulster players' strength
MARK ANSCOMBE knew he faced a difficult job when he took over at Ulster, but he could never have anticipated that the role would be so drastically altered by tragedy after just a few weeks.
Replacing the popular Brian McLaughlin after he had guided Ulster to their first Heineken Cup final since 1999 was already a tough task, particularly given the shoddy way in which the changeover was handled.
The pressure was on the New Zealander before he even arrived, but victory over Munster at Ravenhill on September 14 showed that the new man was getting to grips with it all.
A day later, the unimaginable happened on the Spence farm in Down. The life of the prodigious Nevin Spence was claimed along with his father and brother; and Anscombe was faced with managing a grief-stricken squad of players he had only met a matter of weeks before.
The former Auckland coach had to handle the emotions of men who had lost a friend and a colleague. A man he had spent much of that fateful Saturday, September 15 talking about.
"I had looked at our game the day before and was talking to the coaches about what we were looking to do for the following week and some of the selections we were interested in," he recalled. "I decided that day, because he had been injured the previous week, that Nevin was going to start the following Friday against Zebre. Then a couple of hours later we got the call."
Ulster was plunged into mourning; the players were given a week to grieve and rugby was suspended until they were ready.
They held a memorial service at Ravenhill and attended the funeral before returning to training. Last Friday they travelled to Wales and destroyed Cardiff Blues, scoring seven tries. Getting back playing proved just the distraction they needed.
"It was important for the players. The couple of weeks were disruptive and difficult for some to handle," Anscombe explained. "Everyone grieves in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to do it.
"Getting the players back together, getting them in the environment they feel comfortable in, and feel good in -- they built strength from each other.
"It has been tough but they knew that Nev was a doer; getting back to work and what they are paid to do is what he would have wanted and they respect that. Their performance showed that.
"It is time to move on. His memory will always be there. He will be part of this team for the rest of the year. That is the way the guys want it."
That moving on process began last Friday night at the Arms Park. Ulster were sensational, Tommy Bowe scored two tries and the Anscombe project continued in the right direction.
Given the circumstances of his appointment, he knows he needed a good start. "Any new job you start, you are moving in as someone moves out," he said. "That was not a concern. People keep saying about being in the Heineken Cup final last year meaning we have to go on and win it -- but I put expectation on anything I do.
"We want silverware. We have our own goals but you just have to get on and do the work and not think about how it came about that I got the job. I got the opportunity. So I took it. I'm enjoying it."