Ulster confirmed today that Mark Anscombe will be their new Head Coach from next season onwards. The New Zealander has secured a two-year contract with the province. The first question many will ask themselves when they hear this news is ‘Who is this guy?’. Forgive our ignorance, but The Touchline doesn’t know too much about him either! So we did a bit of digging.
Anscombe’s three-year spell in charge of the Auckland ITM Cup side ended last November in somewhat acrimonious circumstances. He combined that role with coaching the highly successful New Zealand U20 side for several years, in a few different roles (Development Coach, Assistant coach). Last year, promoted to Head Coach, he guided the Baby Blacks to their fourth consecutive Junior World Cup win in Italy.
His tenure in charge of Auckland was not particularly special. In 2009, Anscombe guided them to a 5th-placed finish, improved to 2nd in 2010, but then dropped back to 5th in 2011 before leaving the province in November of that year. It’s worth noting that Auckland are the most successful province in that trophy’s history, winning 16 titles. At the end of 2011, Anscombe was asked to reapply for his position as Head Coach and did so. However, the Auckland Rugby Union decided that they wanted a “new face, new direction” and Anscombe was not retained.
Next season the 54-year-old New Zealander will look to provide Ulster with the “new face, new direction” they have been searching for. Here at The Touchline, we were not big fans of the province’s decision to get rid of Brian McLaughlin (video on this link explains a lot). Director of Rugby David Humphreys justified the decision as necessary if Ulster want to put themselves back at the forefront of European rugby. The impression was that they wanted a proven, world-class coach in charge, rather than the relatively inexperienced, reserved McLaughlin.
Is that what Ulster have got with Anscombe? The simple answer is no. True, winning a Junior World Cup is a superb achievement. But doing so with New Zealand is less impressive. Anscombe had several years within the set-up before becoming Head Coach. He was working with what is always the most talented and developed group of young players in the world. We don’t mean to belittle his achievements but how different are they to McLaughlin’s underage records?
The current Ulster coach was part of the Ireland U21 set-up which secured Triple Crowns in 1996 and 1998. He was the Ireland Senior team Skills Coach from 2005 to 2008, helping them to two Triple Crowns too. Having seen his coaching first-hand, The Touchline can assure you that he is a brilliant coach, with exceptional technical and tactical knowledge. We have no doubt whatsoever that he could coach a New Zealand U20 side to the Junior World Cup.
McLaughlin has brought steady improvement since taking over at the northern province for the 09/10 season. While that first season in charge only saw an 8th-place finish in the Celtic League, Ulster did secure their first ever win in England in the Heineken Cup. The 10/11 season saw huge strides made, with a Heineken Cup quarter-final for the first time since 1999, as well as a 3rd-place finish in the Magners League. This season, Ulster are back in the HC quarters and are pushing hard for a PRO12 play-off spot.
While we commend Humphrey and co’s ambitions for their beloved province, we hope that they haven’t gotten ahead of themselves. McLaughlin was bringing a steady improvement to the side, one which would surely have continued with the arrivals of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson next season. Anscombe’s appointment doesn’t really justify the decision the remove McLaughlin. Wheeling out a recognised world-class coach with a CV to back it up would have been understandable.
That said, The Touchline will welcome Anscombe to this fine country! We hope he can indeed bring Ulster to the next level, regularly competing for Heineken Cups. That will benefit all of Irish rugby. In the meantime, here’s hoping McLaughlin goes out with a bang!
Listen to an interesting interview with David Humphreys on the Anscombe appointment over on the BBC.
*What do you make of the goings-on at Ulster? Are you surprised at the appointment of Anscombe? Do you think McLaughlin was doing a good job with the province and deserved another season at least? As always, any comments are welcome below!