Sayonara Anscombe

Well, that was a surprise wasn’t it? Deep in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere rugger silly season, where we had been trying to feign interest in Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey’s move to Glasgae, Ulster only went and sacked Anscombe! Yesterday was Anscombe’s first day back at the office, supervising training for the non-touring Ulstermen – basically Neil McComb and Mike McComish, who we assume were practicing thirty-metre passes – when he got the curly finger and was dispatched summarily. He had known nothing in advance.

Coming hot on the heels of Humph’s departure to Glaws, it seems obvious the events are related. But how?

  • Ulster’s bicameral coaching structure, whereby the DoR, Humph, was responsible for only off-pitch matters with the head coach, Anscombe, taking training and picking the team, was effectively built around Humphreys and his departure meant what felt like a strong and suitable management structure now became pointless. Better to bite the bullet now than have a lame duck for a year
  • A willing pawn no longer had his protector and was chopped at the first available opportunity. Humph’s Machiavellian control structures were no longer needed and have been swept away.

Ulster have moved to combine the roles and recruit a big beast accordingly – Les Kiss comes in on an interim basis with his funky specs and choke tackles and will “assist” Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in coaching and picking the side. Kissy has been Ireland’s defence coach since Deccie came in, building a strong system, and has lots of respect in the game. He also had a rather underwhelming spell as shunting-the-ball-from-side-to-side attack coach for a while – but the less said about that the better. He hasn’t had a head coaching role before and it’s clearly a temporary, if interesting, solution imposed from D4. One wonders if this bears the fingerprints of Nucifora.

Unlike Humph (and McLaughlin), Anscombe will be unlamented by Ulster fans. The view was Humph had replaced one not-great coach with another, and that Anscombe was a yes-man who was out of his depth and who struggled with bench usage in key games, repeatedly falling short. While Ulster progressed in his time, they never added enough to their game to win a trophy, and their strike rate in opposition 22 has become increasingly woeful.  They just kept falling short in the same manner in a number of big games.

Ulster have felt well-run in recent years but the nature of recent changes has been rather slapdash (like indeed the infamous Humph-McLaughlin presser when Humph toe-curlingly insisted he wasn’t firing his coach) – the Ulster players in Argentina heard about Humph’s departure by text from Fez, and Rory Best has described the situation as “concerning”. Peter O’Reilly summed it up better, calling it a “shambles”.

So where to from here? The press have dusted off their over-optimistic requests from days of yore and have pinpointed Dingo Deans and Wayne Smith as Ulster’s preferred men – anyone who has been tracking recent provincial spend, or remembers the underwhelming feeling when Penney and Anscombe were appointed will perhaps expect something more left-field.

The key men in the appointment will not be Logan and Humph like last time, but Nucifora and Schmidt – the process followed and team appointed will be part of a broader Irish rugby-based vision than the narrow provincial focus of before, and late fifties Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coaches might not fit that template. Jeremy Davidson might, or Birch, or Mark McCall, or even Conor O’Shea or Geordan Murphy if they could be tempted home. Despite the promptings from, Michael Bradley and Eddie are unlikely to be in the mix.

Ulster’s appointment will be the first in the new ERCC world where Irish provinces will need to compete based on strong sustainable coaching structures and domestic talent – how it proceeds and who drives the bus will be very interesting.

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  1. Peat

     /  July 1, 2014

    Good riddance to bad rubbish. He produced a frequently complacent, dangerously indisciplined and curiously blunt team out of a lot of talent. His record in bringing on young players now looks dismal; he was given the keys to a treasure trove of youth and only a bare handful have really kicked on under his rule. Those who do not follow Ulster will mouth all the usual platitudes about “worrying times”, “too much too quick”… maybe yes, but it is a lesser risk than keeping him.

    As for the strong rumours about his treatement of young players, well…

    • Stevo

       /  July 1, 2014

      Care to elaborate on those rumours in a non-libellous manner?

      • Peat

         /  July 1, 2014

        Allegedly a fluorescently ginger and well thought of academy product was told to take himself off to the Ravens using rather salty language. That’s the biggest rumour. Another rumour is that a player of around the same age and position fell foul of the Cowboy for sticking up for said ginge. Behaviour of this sort, allegedly, was not uncommon, just that being the worst case.

    • We won the Pro12 fair play award last year, didn’t we? I might be wrong about that. Not sure we are “dangerously indisciplined” – more that we got red cards in (what proved to be) our biggest two games of the year. Given both were accidental and at worst reckless, rather than anything deliberate, I would take issue with that point.

      On the rest – without necessarily agreeing wholesale – I don’t disagree.

      Curious about whether you’re talking about Nelson or Joyce, though…

      • Peat

         /  July 2, 2014

        Nelson. Had forgot that Joyce was a bit dayglo too…

        And fair point on the discipline – believe we did win the Fair Play league, so I’ll have to qualify that.

        In two of our biggest games, the Sarries one and the Leinster one looking for a playoff, I think there were around four penalties in the opening ten-fifteen minutes alone – including the reckless moments that led to cards. At the key moments, Anscombe couldn’t send them out in the right state of mind, and the result was very poor discipline in those games – and, as seen, if the players act recklessly, there’s a chance they’ll give the ref an opportunity to show a red card. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, only thing the player can do is give the ref as little reason to consider it as possible. Maybe recklessness would be a better word.

        Tbh, those were far from the only games we started in, just the only ones where the problem was shipping too many penalties. But yes, generally our discipline was very good – mea culpa.

      • They both seem to have disappeared (I thought Joyce looked very good in a couple of his appearances, as it happens).

        Agree on the state of mind thing, a lot of froth and fervour seemingly.

  2. Here’s another point – Schmidt is Kiss’s boss. Let’s say Schmidt wants him to pick Payne at 13 for a ERCC game and Kiss thinks Cave is the better option – that doesn’t leave Kiss in a great position – he’s pretty conflicted.

    Pick what he thinks is best for Ulster, or what is best for Ireland?

    • Biscuitallions

       /  July 1, 2014

      You would imagine Schmidt and Kiss have discussed at length where they would ideally like players such as Payne to be playing. I doubt there will be any huge differences in opinion at this stage.

      • Well. Picking Payne at 13 for a big HEC game clearly suits Ireland better, but might not be the best option for Ulster

      • Peat

         /  July 1, 2014

        I think the arrival of Ludik and Logie talking about Gilroy at 15 kills the idea of Payne being Ulster’s best 13 and 15. I don’t see such a situation arising barring a big butcher’s bill. It’s Payne vs Cave for Ulster’s 13 shirt, and whoever wins that duel is the best man to fill it from everyone’s perspective. An issue only arises if Kiss and Schmidt disagree on who’s winning that battle and that seems pretty unlikely.

    • Or try this one. If you’re Pat Lam or Anthony Foley, Kiss is now your rival. You don’t want to be sharing detailed biometric data on your players’training with another provincial boss. You certainly don’t want him knowing which players are allowed shoot out of the defensive line and which aren’t, and you won’t be welcoming Kiss observing set-piece calls.

      For Leinster, whose squad is essentially one and the same as the Irish squad, this might be something of a moot point, but for Munster and Connacht (who would at best supply 5 of the first choice 23 between them), there’s surely a temptation – maybe even a responsibility – to put the shutters up somewhat until Kiss finishes with Ulster.

      Not much of an issue if Ulster hire someone from Super XV in August/September, more of a problem if they take someone from Japan in February, an almighty pain in the arse if Ulster take the best candidate available, Conor O’Shea, and Kiss spends the whole season there.

      BTW: some great oneliners along the lines of “Jaysus, it’s going all Game of Thrones up North” going around.

      • Lop12

         /  July 1, 2014

        this is the most valid comment I have seen on the topic. Nail on head. Kiss CANNOT do both.

    • Whatever else, at this stage I think Ulster will benefit most from a highly technical coach, which is what we now have (for the first time ever, possibly?).

      While I appreciate the thoughts about conflict of interest above, I suspect everyone will get over it. Ultimately the IRFU pays everyone’s wages.

  3. connachtexile

     /  July 1, 2014

    Will be intrigued to see how the appointment process goes. Pat Lam recently asked Joe Schmidt to sit in with him on the interviews when he was hiring some of his new backroom coaching staff (think it was our strength and conditioning coach vacancy but not sure) and Schmidt was very influential in the appointment. With new appointees in Connacht and hopefully new appointees in Ulster under the Schmidt approval it should bring us closer to raising the standards across the board in Ireland while bringing us closer to playing the same brand of rugby that will benefit the Ireland International teams.

  4. Sound Steve

     /  July 1, 2014

    I think Anscombe got a really hard press generally. Ulster lucked out to a large degree in getting to the H-Cup final in 2012; 2nd place in a tough(ish) group, beating a pretty poor Munster side, scraping past Edinburgh at home in the semi and getting utterly pasted by Leinster in the final. In the Magners League that year, they completely underachieved. From what I can see this seems to have led Ulster fans to think they were a top tier side.

    Since Anscombe has come in, of Ulster’s two world-class forwards (Afoa and Ferris); one completely lost interest and the other has barely played and been forced to retire. He has brought through a lot of young players, both first teamers (Jackson, Marshall, Henderson, Olding) and squad players (Allen, Herring, Lutton, Andrew etc.) and quite a few first-team players have progressed well under him (Henry, Trimble, Black, Williams). Ultimately this has made Ulster look less utterly reliant on their foreign players than two years ago. He has also brought a great deal more consistency to team.

    Admittedly, he has made Ulster look like Europe’s form team in the groups only to go belly up after the 6N but there were mitigating circumstances. All in all, I think he can leave with his head held high and I can’t help but think Ulster are a bit f*cked now, captain gone, front row gone, the promise of Ferris returning gone, coaching/governance structure in disarray.

    • Peat

       /  July 1, 2014

      The captain could no longer play effectively, the front row that’s gone contains an absentee and a guy who finished the season as second choice, we’ve done fine without Fez and we’ve lanced the poison in our coaching and governance structure. If we’re up the brown creek now, I hate to think where we were last season.

    • I actually liked Anscombe, but looking back on it he hasn’t progressed the team much in the two seasons he’s had when you take the results out of it. In his first year in charge we dominated the Pro12, scoring tries for fun with some nice rugby to boot. When we got into the red zone, you expected us to score, and we had a very strong defense.

      Last season though, very different story. Red cards aside, I think the 2012/13 vintage would have scored tries against Saracens/Leinster in Ravenhill, and we would have probably made it to the Pro12 final to boot. The only discernible “identity” from the team in the latter half of this season especially has been static one-out rugby on halfway with no thrust, followed by a freak break and a fumble.

      Put the results in and we won very few “important” matches under him. 0/2 in QF’s (at home), 0/2 against Leinster in Pro12 playoffs. The only one that really sticks out is the Welford Road match, and that was probably more down to Manu being injured than anything, frankly.

      Anyway, he’s gone, and so continues the trend of Ulster not treating coaches particularly well when it comes to hitting them with the door on the way out.

      In terms of candidates, I’d love to see McCall back, or O’Shea, but they seem pretty happy in England. I think the BBC were saying Jake White and Graham Henry were favourites. To be honest I’d agree with WoC in terms of taking someone who doesn’t quite have so huge a CV (plus I’d rather not see Ulster kick the leather, stitches and balloon off the ball when we’re in our own half if, per the White Formula).

      • connachtexile

         /  July 1, 2014

        Graham Henry?! – Shudder.

    • Have to say, I thought the majority of Anscombe’s tenure appeared to be going pretty well, and I think two big red cards killed our season more than anything else – or, rather, took away the chance of us giving two very important matches a proper go, of course I realise we may still have lost both… Anyway, my point is I broadly agree with your post.

      However, I have to take issue with us “lucking out” in 2012. That “tough-ish” group contained Clermont and Leicester, while our win in Thomond I will forever file under epic, despite you labelling those notorious easybeats as “poor”. I’m pretty disappointed we didn’t win a single pot with the team that’s now no longer, but I still consider some of our successes as good (and valid) achievements.

  5. @Completebore

     /  July 1, 2014

    Its had a feeling of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for Anscombe for a while now, but seeing as pre-season was starting I was assuming he was getting the last year. I’m not sad to see him go, but the timing looks odd. The IT suggests in its article that they might not fill the post permanently until the start of the 15/16 season, which is a long time for a caretaker, sorry interim, coach/DoR.

    As for replacements, I’d quite like McCall or O’Shea, but not sure if they could be tempted home (the media thought that the Irish always want to return doesn’t convice me). I’d quite like to give Mike Ruddock a spin. Mainly from his U20 teams, there always seems to be good gameplans balanced on negating the opposition and maximising your own talents. And he should be good for the youth developement.

    • At the risk of letting my distaste for all things Plastic get out of hand, Brendan Venter’s Pass-thru Server can count himself fortunate to be on any list containing Ruddock and O’Shea.

      • curates_egg

         /  July 1, 2014

        Another way of phrasing my comment 😉

    • Ruddock is a great shout although I’d have thought he’d have got the gig straight away with no need for Kiss as interim DoR.

  6. curates_egg

     /  July 1, 2014

    Would Ulster fans want McCall? He has done ok with a huge budget at Sarries but not always delivered convincing performances. The place is a vipers’ den too

    • Stephen

       /  July 1, 2014

      I have yet to be impressed by McCall. He has a higher budget than any Irish province and most Premiership teams; he can recruit almost as many foreigners as he wants; and he has yet to win anything.

    • Sound Steve

       /  July 1, 2014

      Don’t mistake teams you don’t like for being bad teams. They have the budget relatiev to most English clubs (surely less than Ulster though…?) but they have also recruited intelligently.They won the Premiership in its league format and they lost to a magnificent Toulon team in a H-Cup final after dismantling Clermont in the semi. Throughout the H-Cup, they had all the hallmarks of an excellently-coached team – defensively superb, disciplined, professional and ruthless.

      Ulster would be beyond stupid not to take him if they got an opportunity.

      • curates_egg

         /  July 1, 2014

        Ah now. They have a bigger budget than most premiership teams. They did not win the premiership…and they only made it to the final of the Heineken Cup with a massive smattering of luck, as Ulster will testify. Spin it your way if you like.

        As Stephen notes, McCall has yet to win anything despite his big budget. The style of rugby at Saracens has often looked very limited. There are also questionmarks about how much influence he actually has.

        To claim my question is down to me not liking Sarries is nonsense: it is a serious question. We have some great Irish coaches out there: I just question whether McCall is one of them. I may be wrong to question him…but not based on the content of your reply.

        • Sound Steve

           /  July 1, 2014

          You say big budget but they didn’t have three World Cup winners on their roster. They have recruited intelligently – relative unknowns (Burger, Barritt, Botha, Wyles, Brits, De Kock) blended with good youth players (Mako V., Farrell, Goode). The only player they picked up at the top of the market is Ashton.

          Also, to denigrate a team’s season because they failed to win a cup is petty in the extreme. They won the league section in EP (averaging over 3 tries per game) but lost the final and reached the HC final and played some pretty decent rugby in the process (see Clermont).

          I’m no Sarries fan and I’m certainly not saying they’re the best team around but credit where credit’s due, McCall has done a very good job there.

          • curates_egg

             /  July 1, 2014

            You love strawmen, don’t you? I did not denigrate their season.

            My only point is to question if McCall is really that great: is he getting the best out of the resources available to him? How much influence does he have at Sarries?

            These are questions I don’t have an answer to but would be interested in one. Maybe McCall is great but simply because he is at a big club does not make him great.

          • Stephen

             /  July 2, 2014

            Saracens had one good performance in the HEC, in the semi-final vs Clermont.

            Beat Connacht home and away (struggled away), beat Zebre home and away, and lost both games to Toulouse. Won at Ravenhill – where they had a 75-minute, 1-man overlap – by 2 points.

            Beat Clermont well; it’s hard to tell if Clermont were ever going to turn up or if Saracens honestly battered them, but you would have to credit them for that performance.

            Outclassed by Toulon, in every sense (Farrell and Billy V are two classy operators . . . gobshites).

            Premiership, they won the regular season as you say – parallel to Ulster last season. But come the knockouts, they lost.

            Now it’s possible that, free from Venter’s influence/restraint, McCall could improve. But I do not see evidence that he is the top-level coach figure that could be a long-term option for Ulster.

  7. Peat

     /  July 1, 2014

    Btw – if people want to discuss potential conflicts of interest – FvdM vs Hendy/Tuohy, Herbst vs Staypuft and Ludik vs Gilroy are where you’d look first.

  8. Graham Henry? Wayne Smith? Dingo Deans? Lets be realistic, they’ll get some NPC Coach with 3 New Zealand B caps that coached an underage New Zealand team at some stage..

  9. This seems a shabby way to treat a coach. I hope that we are not going the wendyball road here.
    Ulster had gained respect in the past two seasons and not many English or French sides
    enjoyed being in the same group.
    There are only two items of silverware on offer and a team cannot suddenly come from
    nowhere and win one – just ask Leinster or Munster.
    If the reason is player power it will be a short lived win for the clique as the new coach
    will need to squash them early on in his tenure.
    I assume that Les Kiss is a stopgap until the end of the Super 15 season.

    Some of the suggested replacement names are way off the wall
    Jake White has spoken of Irish rugby in less than glowing terms on many occasions.
    Graham Henry,is very unlikely to be interested- a world cup winning coach being motivated by the RABO ?.

    Conor O’Shea would be a good choice. He handles some angry Quins players very well.
    e,g Danny Care, Mike Brown and Joe Marler.
    He has turned Quins from a bottom half of the PL to being top 4 contenders.

    This has been a terrible holiday time and I hope that the management upheavals are not
    reflected on the pitch during the new season.
    Good luck to the team in 2014/15.

  10. I’d love to have an inside line on this one, but don’t currently. Glad you fellas have a bit more detail than I’ve read the papers.

    Hard to know if there is a right and wrong in this situation – and it does seem clashing personalities have been involved on many levels – let alone who would be one and who the other.

    Shambles seems like the correct word, certainly in the means if not the end, however… if Wayne Smith becomes Ulster coach everyone is invited to a party at my house. And I throw a good party.

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