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Heineken Cup: Anscombe certain Ulster can move out of survival mode

This Friday’s away trip to Northampton will require the continent’s in-form team to up their game even further.

Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

“SURVIVE” WAS THE word on which Mark Anscombe’s north island drawl lingered the longest when he faced the media this morning in Jordanstown.

Despite reaching a dozen consecutive wins on Sunday, the Pro12 league leaders have certainly not been thriving in recent weeks.

Instead, they have just about managed to squeeze out two narrow wins in Italy, before producing another workman-like display to defeat Llanelli Scarlets in the top-of-the-table clash in Wales.

These were 12 points which were only impressive by their connection with the 12-game run and Anscombe’s 100 per cent record as Ulster head coach.

“I think a good reason for that is the change in personnel.” The New Zealander said of the recent performances. “We’ve had a lot of guys out and then (against Llanelli) we’ve a good few guys back and that was the first time they played together for a month.

“It’s just about gelling and getting combinations going, so it’s not a panic. We have survived and we are unbeaten. We can get over-critical, but the young guys have experienced their run and now we’re getting guys back from international duty – they had good campaigns there so they’re in good spirits – bringing that level back to Ulster.”

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Logistical problem

A delayed flight back from Wales on Sunday provided an unwelcome extra delay where there is little room for error in a four-day turnaround before heading back across the Irish Sea to face Northampton in Franklins’ Gardens.

Anscombe, though, laughed off the inconvenience as a “hiccup” and insisted: “the boys didn’t get to bed until about three in the morning. But I haven’t heard one grumble in two days about it. I think that shows that the guys are focus on the job instead of looking for excuses.”

The imminent threat to Ulster’s flawless record this season will come in the formidable shape of the 2011 Heineken Cup finalists’ pack, the basis of which will be battle-hardened and match-fit from recent outings in the Premiership.

Ulster have improved massively from the side that almost knocked the Saints out at the quarter final stage in 2011. And, after the coach asked rhetorically quizzed the media on the Saints strength, Anscombe called on his tight five to stand up and be counted when facing this litmus test.

“They’ve got a strong, strong pack and their game’s built around that and they don’t hide from the fact.  They’re confident with it and that’s what we’ve got to be able to compete with.

“We’ve got to be excited about meeting that front on and not we’ve got to be able to hold that (threat) and conquer it if we’re going to compete because you need that front foot ball. So our tight five particularly have to step up and show their quality.

“I’m confident in our tight five, everyone who’s going to be on the pitch has played international rugby. So they’re big players who can step up and show what they’re about.”

Win that battle, and last season’s European runners-up possess the back-line to do much more than merely survive in Pool 4 of the Heineken Cup.

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Sean Farrell

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