The reason that it takes him time to answer is simply because there have been so many good moments since he took charge. Think of the first game of pre-season – a win over Bayonne in France. Think of the two pre-season games against English opposition when two young Ulster sides, packed full of academy players won one and drew one. Think too of the clean sweep of wins against Welsh opposition in Wales in the RaboDirect PRO12, the bonus point win in Northampton and the last home game of 2012 - that superb win over interprovincial rivals Leinster. No wonder it takes Anscombe a few moments to answer.
“Collectively there have been a lot of good ones. That penalty try against Leinster was special, Andrew Trimble’s try against Leinster, all four tries against Northampton, they way the forwards shut out Glasgow up there was superb given the conditions. What pleases me in particular is the way we have built phases, periods of pressure that have led to things like the scores against Northampton and the tries against Leinster.”
Those moments mean that Ulster sit nine points clear at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 and three points clear at the top of their Heineken Cup Pool. However, Anscombe is quick to point out that success isn’t judged on what you achieve between August and December, it’s what happens in the second half of the season that counts:
“I suppose we have gone better than I expected results wise,” he says. “As a team we are still finding our feet. There has been lots of movement over the course of the four months that we have been playing but I think the good thing is that the guys have been taking opportunities and that we are building depth in the team so there is a lot of accountability. It’s a sign of the character of this squad that we stay in games for 80 minutes. We don’t give up. We have had a couple of narrow ones but when we get our top team on I think that we have shown that we have a pretty forceful side overall.
"The challenge is to keep growing that and we all know that nothing is won at Christmas – at the end of the day the success of your season is judged at the end of your season by trophies or by how well you have done. We are happy where we are at – better than expected but we are also realistic that there is still a long way to go and that there is a lot of rugby still to be played.”
The first half of the 2012 season will be remembered as a time of unprecedented success, but it will also be remembered for another reason – the tragic passing of Nevin Spence. His death aged just 22 hit everyone in the Ulster squad hard. Anscombe, despite having known the young centre for just a few months, was no different:
“It’s never an easy thing to deal with,” he reflects.“It’s not something that you experience or come across too often. It was a difficult time for a lot of guys who have grown up and played a lot of rugby and spent a lot of time with Nevin. He was certainly a character that had a big impact on people. In the short time that I was here with him you knew he was a trainer – he trained hard and always gave 100% and that was in everything he did. He is certainly someone that is remembered and entrenched in my guys’minds for the year.
"The boys have decided to have his initials embroidered onto their jerseys and the fact is deep down he is not forgotten and never will be. I think that the players being in that environment has helped them to get through it and deep down we have had some important wins in close games and maybe Nevin is looking over us and the guys dig that bit deeper the way Nevin would have done. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a pleasant experience but we have to move on and we certainly have the memory of Nevin looking over us. Hopefully at the end of the year we can look back and say that we served him proudly.”
One of the hallmarks of that time was the support given to the team by the Ulster public. More than five thousand people attended the memorial service to Nevin Spence in September. That support is also evident each time Ulster run-out onto the pitch. Almost every game at Ravenhill this season has been a sell out.
“The home support is outstanding,” concludes Anscombe. “Ravenhill is a special place. There are not too many teams that are fortunate enough to have that sort of support. The beauty is that if we can be in there at the end of the year, get the play-offs and the prospect of two new stands at either end - we can get even more people in. The guys love playing there and we can make it even better.”
Play-off rugby is what every Ulster Rugby fan wishes for going into 2013. Achieving that is the aim of the Head Coach, his assistants and back room staff. Regardless of what happens in the second half of the season, Anscombe is enjoying life at his adopted Province.
“It has been good so far, the people have been friendly. I suppose winning always make you feel better where you are. The only thing I would say is that it gets dark here very early! The tough things are that our kids are back in New Zealand, but we knew that so you move on. Tracey, my wife has been a pretty active person over the years with having her own businesses. Now she is starting to look around and wonder what she can do here – but that’s the challenge of moving somewhere new and finding something to keep occupied. It’s good – we are very happy.”
Does he have any personal New Year’s resolutions? – “No! When I have made them in the past I have struggled to keep them! In terms of the team we had a few special moments in 2012 - hopefully there are plenty more to come this year.”
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