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'Staying in the game is the main thing for me and not letting it drift away'

Ulster head to Toulouse tomorrow intent on keeping their Champions Cup tie alive.

O'Connor wants revenge over Toulouse.
O'Connor wants revenge over Toulouse.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ONE OF THE things that Ulster have been keen to stress this season is the progress they are making and, on the evidence of results at grounds such as the RDS Arena, Stade Marcel-Michelin and Franklin’s Gardens, it’s hard to disagree.

For the first time since their Saracens quarter-final defeat at Kingspan Stadium in 2013, there is a feeling that this is a squad that could be genuine contenders for silverware if things fall their way.

Now with a hard-nosed pack to back up a talented set of backs, Ulster now have a more rounded arsenal to call upon than they have in seasons past.

But the acid test is still in those big games, in particular European knockout ties. There is still that lingering belief hanging over this squad like a spectre that last season should have yielded a Challenge Cup trophy, and it is one they are keen to exorcise as quickly as possible.

The word capitulation is perhaps a little harsh as to how they lost to Leicester Tigers in last year’s semi-finals, but it felt like it at the time. Leading 17-6 at the interval, Ulster allowed their opponents to score 20 unanswered points and, despite a brief resurgence, would go on to lose 33-24.

So, as they head to France tomorrow for the first leg of their Heineken Champions Cup last-16 tie with defending champions Toulouse, the intention is for them to prove they have not only learned sufficient lessons from that defeat at Welford Road but they can also apply them.

guy-porter-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-teammates Ulster learned a lesson against Leicester. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Staying in the game is the main thing for me and not letting the game drift away from you,” says second row Alan O’Connor. “So it’s things like trying to dominate territory, going well in the set-piece, making sure we’re playing to our strengths and taking away the opposition’s strengths. It’s about being smart in the way we go about our business.”

Of course, Toulouse are a different prospect to the Tigers, particularly with the game switched from their usual home of the Stade Ernest Wallon to the imposing sold-out 33,150-capacity Stadium de Toulouse and with their ‘Le Grand Chelem’ winning France stars back in tow.

Les Rouges et Noirs have looked like a shadow of their usual selves during the Six Nations, sliding to fifth in the Top 14 standings, but with the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Anthony Jelonch able to exert command on proceedings Ulster will be all too aware their hosts are lethal if given even a sniff of an opportunity.

“Most French teams pose similar threats in the sense of really good backs, forwards who can play, massive pack if they can get their set-piece going, scrum right. They have a good set-piece, so we’ll look to go head-to-head with them and we’ll enjoy that challenge,” adds O’Connor.

“We’ll be looking to neutralise a lot of what they have and making sure we go over as a collective and take away their individuals. We all know who they have, so we’ll be trying to shut them down.”

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After sitting out last week’s defeat to the Vodacom Bulls, O’Connor looks likely to be restored to the starting line-up for the European tie having firmly established himself as the perfect foil to Iain Henderson in Ulster’s second row, which would continue his run of starting each Champions Cup game this season.

Indeed, such has been his longevity in the engine room for the province that the Dubliner was in the team that last won in Toulouse back in December 2015, a 25-23 win spearheaded by tries from Ruan Pienaar, Andrew Trimble and Luke Marshall.

But O’Connor claims they will not mention that game in the build-up to this one, instead urging them to draw on their experiences from earlier this season against Leinster and Clermont to convince them they are capable of adding another significant away win to the CV.

“We won’t talk about it too much because there’s only four or five of us who actually played in that game. But nothing changes for us, really,” he insists.

“We’ll go over with lots of confidence. We’ve won in France already this year. We’ve won in Leinster. We’ve won in England. It’s a massive challenge but we don’t need to be pulling on something that was four or five years ago. We’ll be bigging ourselves up on what we’ve already done this year and be realistic with what the challenge is.”

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