When Ulster announced Brian McLaughlin would be leaving his role as head coach in February, plenty of eyebrows were raised – and even more when the province booked their place in the Heineken Cup final.
His replacement Mark Anscombe is well-respected in his homeland of New Zealand but in Europe he arrived somewhat unheralded – before the start of the season those eyebrows remained raised.
But after just five RaboDirect PRO12 matches and a first Heineken Cup clash of the season, they are nowhere to be seen.
Anscombe has guided Ulster to five consecutive wins in the RaboDirect PRO12 and impressive European victories over Castres and Glasgow Warriors.
The Ireland internationals have been well integrated back into the squad, including Tommy Bowe who has settled into life back in Ulster seamlessly while New Zealander Jared Payne’s return from injury has felt like a new signing.
The youngsters have also stepped up to the plate – fly-half Paddy Jackson has produced composed performances that belie his 20 years while Paul Marshall has been outstanding at scrum-half with South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar on international duty.
Pienaar is now back however, something Rory Best labelled the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ and centre Paddy Wallace, who was restricted to just eight league starts last season, believes Anscombe must take the lions’ share of the credit.
“Mark has come in and done a fantastic job,” said 33-year-old Wallace, who has 30 Ireland caps to his name.
“We basically swept last season under the carpet and have drawn a line under reaching the Heineken Cup final and focused on the future and that has served us well so far.
“The thing that strikes me is the strength in depth that we have got at the club, everywhere you look on the pitch there is quality, in both the backs and the forwards.
“Paul Marshall has been in superb form so far this season but he didn't really get a game at the weekend and that just shows the options we’ve got.
“We’ve been very happy with the form we’ve shown this season, you can’t really ask for more than five wins – winning games breeds confidence and that’s obvious for us at the moment.”
While things on the pitch have been going swimmingly for Ulster this season, off the pitch they have endured the tragic death of 22-year-old centre Nevin Spence, who, along with brother Graham and father Noel, lost his life in a farming accident in September.
The news stunned the whole rugby community and after postponing their RaboDirect PRO12 match with Zebre, Ulster returned to the pitch with Spence’s initials woven into their shirts.
And Wallace insists Spence will never be forgotten at Ravenhill.
“I think it has kind of rallied us and brought us closer together,” added Wallace. “But then each player and each individual will deal with it in a different way.
“We’ve got his name on our shirts and he will always be in our sub-conscious on and off the field, but you do have to move on from it and get on with things.
“As a rugby team, that’s what we’ve had to do on the pitch and what we will try to continue to do.”