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Stalwart lock Alan O'Connor keeps getting better for McFarland's Ulster

The 28-year-old second row has been in strong form for Ulster in recent seasons.

The Skerries man has become an integral part of the Ulster set-up.
The Skerries man has become an integral part of the Ulster set-up.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

BEING WITHOUT CAPTAIN Iain Henderson for tomorrow night’s Champions Cup opener against Toulouse is an obvious blow for Ulster, while fellow lock Kieran Treadwell’s suspension is unfortunately-timed too.

Those absences mean Dan McFarland will be relying on Sam Carter and Alan O’Connor to deliver a strong showing in Ulster’s second row as the Top 14 side visit Belfast.

Former Wallabies international Carter has been captaining the team recently as he shows good form, while O’Connor has become something of a cult favourite since moving north from his native Dublin back in 2012.

With 117 Ulster caps under his belt, the 28-year-old Skerries man is a genuine stalwart for the northern province and McFarland has been delighted to see O’Connor continuing to get better as he matures.

“He has been playing out of his skin,” says McFarland. “Al has spent the last two years gradually improving. He was already in a really good place.

“He is an extremely skillful player and probably epitomises that fighting, competitive attitude that we look for from the guys in the squad. He is a real driver of the people around him in that kind of bite that you need in professional rugby.”

For his part, O’Connor has enjoyed working with McFarland since the head coach’s arrival in 2018.

He has become one of the leaders in the Ulster set-up, captaining the side on occasion, and says McFarland’s focus on off-the-ball work has been particularly important in helping him to improve as a player.

“Dan brought in more analysis of games to make you more aware of what you were doing off the ball,” explains O’Connor.

“Before it was, ‘Were you on the ball there or had you cleaned out there?’ I think what he brought in was, ‘What are you doing 10 seconds before that, what is your work like away from the set-piece, are you reading the game well, are you a step in front or a step behind?’”

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sam-carter-is-presented-with-the-guinness-pro14-man-of-the-match-award-by-alan-oconnor Sam Carter and O'Connor are set to team up again in the second row tomorrow. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

Getting into good positions earlier has helped O’Connor to be more impactful with his tackling, as well as his ball-carrying and handling skills.

With skills coach Dan Soper working hard on the Ulster players’ technical ability, McFarland has backed them to pass the ball more, particularly in the forwards. O’Connor has stood out in this regard with his tip-on and tip-in passes.

“Dan wants us to play fast, move the ball fast, and give a real identity to Ulster with aggressive breakdown and aggressive carries,” says O’Connor.

“Having Sops in is brilliant. We do a lot of work with him in the gym. In between our gym sessions we’ll be doing a lot of work with the ball, handling skills, working on our plays off nine and 10, and just having mini competitions every day keeping everyone on their toes and just making sure you’re doing the work that you’re supposed to be doing but having a good time doing it as well.”

Of course, O’Connor is judged on his efforts in the tight as much as anything. He has brought real edge to Ulster’s play in that regard and will hope to deliver plenty more of the same against a heavyweight Toulouse pack tomorrow.

“You have got to love it as a rugby player, it is a physical game.

“There is a physical confrontation in everything that you are supposed to be good at so you have to appreciate that and enjoy those opportunities to get one up on someone and not be a victim.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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