Ulster coach Mark Anscombe: We must nurture young stars
Connacht 7 Ulster 18
MARK ANSCOMBE moved swiftly to dampen down any unrealistic expectations that might be heaped on Iain Henderson's shoulders after his man-of-the-match performance against Connacht on Saturday.
Henderson was excellent and contributed handsomely to Ulster's first win of the season. His performance also highlighted a growing belief that his future lies in the second-row and not the back-row for both province and country.
Henderson, Anscombe, and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt "see him as a No 6 (blindside flanker)", but Anscombe "likes him in the second-row" for now at least.
Standing at an imposing 6ft6ins and weighing a healthy 18st, he looks more bulked up than last season having clearly hit the weights during pre-season.
"He has power, he's big, he's young, he's mobile. Look, time will sort that (position) out, but there's not that many big men trucking around the place in Ireland, he is a valuable asset. I think he will do an admirable job at either," added Anscombe.
The Ulster coach was, however, quick to temper the words of praise that were being bandied about after Henderson's performance and pointedly used the experiences of another of Ulster's starlets, Paddy Jackson, as a cautionary tale.
"Iain is only 22," he said. "He is not the finished article, but are we going to start comparing him with all the best players now? We have to keep our feet on the ground and nurture him and let him develop. If we do that right we will have a fine prospect."
Anscombe's reference to managing expectations was clearly a nod to what he believes Jackson has been exposed to in his fledgling career.
The out-half is just 21 years of age but has been thrust into the spotlight by dint of his undoubted talent - Ulster have other option at 10 but believe he is the best selection for them - and his elevation to the international stage last season. His every performance is now examined in minute detail.
It is true to suggest he is still learning his craft and growing as a player but now does so with every performance critiqued down to the most minute detail because of his status with Ulster and Ireland.
Ironically, his performance against Connacht was the perfect snapshot. He was quiet and second best to Connacht's Dan Parks in the first half, but once Ulster began to gain the upperhand in the second half he grew in stature and contributed hand- somely to the win with 13 individual points.
His try was a particular stand-out moment. Luke Marshall excelled with a decisive break to drive a chasm into Connacht's defensive line before Paul Marshall fed Jared Payne, who flashed the ball to Jackson coming off his right shoulder for the touchdown.
It was a gorgeous move and highlighted all that is exciting about Ulster: Marshall and, indeed, Jackson as the out-half showed pace, a step and an eye for the line.
Having had a difficult opening half, when twice he kicked to touch on the full and missed a penalty, his second-half showing was an enormous improvement.
His understated reaction after the game when pressed about how he was feeling having contributed 13 points was telling.
"It's just good that I won't get slagged off for once," Jackson said.
Trying to get Jackson to 'big' himself up was like chiselling granite with a butter-knife.
Instead it was left to Nick Williams, Ulster's bruising No 8, to heap praise on Jackson's influence in the second half: "We give Paddy positive vibes and he just pulls us around the paddock. It's all credit to Paddy," said Williams.
Jackson's experiences since breaking through with Ulster and, to a lesser extent, Ireland have left their mark on him. It explains Anscombe's desire to temper expectations about Henderson and also Marshall.
"Sometimes, these young men have talent, but are they ready? Maybe not," said Anscombe. "I think sometimes we rush people and can be quite critical of them when it hasn't worked out."
Saturday night's first win of the season was badly needed by Ulster, having lost their opening two games. It was February before they lost a second game last season.
Connacht will feel they lost an opportunity to make a really strong statement by not taking a major scalp, especially after playing all the rugby in a lively first half when Parks and Robbie Henshaw were exciting and dynamic.
Allied to a solid scrum and some tremendous physicality, they were worth far more than their 7-5 half-time advantage. Their undoing was their work at the breakdown. They were on the wrong side of an 8-2 penalty count at the break.
It is an area Pat Lam acknowledged they will look at this week. They will take some positives from the game, not least their resilient attitude. They deserve kudos for how they continued to hammer away at the Ulster line right to the final play.
In the end, they were undone by a more clinical Ulster side and Connacht were also left counting the cost in real terms with both Willie Faloon (ankle) and Jason Harris-Wright (bicep) looking like long-term injury casualties.
CONNACHT – G Duffy (D Poolman 72); F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks (C Ronaldson 61), K Marmion; B Wilkinson (R Ah You 64), J Harris-Wright (S Henry 11), N White (R Loughney 64); M Swift, C Clarke (A Muldowney 40); J Heenan, W Faloon (G Naoupu 46), J Muldoon.
ULSTER – J Payne, D McIlwaine (C Gilroy 40), D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen (J McKinney 71), P Jackson, I Porter (P Marshall 40); T Court (K McCall 66), R Herring, D Fitzpatrick (R Lutton 39), J Muller (Captain), I Henderson, R Wilson (R Diack 64) , C Henry, N Williams (L Stevenson 56).
Ref – J lacey.