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Connacht raid Ulster to steal young gems

Two of Ulster’s young guns have gone west to try and strike gold — in rugby terms at least.

Niall O’Connor and Mark McCrea have both signed two-year contracts with Connacht as the weakest Irish province looks to strengthen its hand.

Having lost Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr at the end of the season, the arrival of O’Connor and Mark McCrea and the return of number eight George Naoupu from Japan is a welcome boost for the westerners.

O’Connor has played 51 times for Ulster, rotating the number 10 jersey with Ian Humphreys but Ruan Pienaar’s arrival at Ravenhill has hampered the Limavady man’s chances of nailing down a regular starting spot for Brian McLaughlin’s men.

He was part of the Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam-winning squad in 2007, coached by Connacht duo Eric Elwood and Dan MacFarland.

The 23-year-old is a direct replacement for Keatley and has an accomplished kicking game as well as providing a physical threat on the ball.

McCrea, also 23, is a back three player who has won 25 caps for Ulster and has represented Ireland A on three occasions.

He has also signed a two-year contract and will help fill the void left by Carr’s departure. The double capture reflects the recent commitment by the other Irish provinces to send players to Connacht to further their careers while New Zealander Naoupu has been lured back from the Kobe Steelers for the 2011/12 season.

Naoupu was hugely impressive for Connacht last season, very powerful off the back of the scrum and a rallying point.

Ezra Taylor was brought in as his replacement this season but is a less physical back-row player and has been hampered by injury. “We are delighted with the news,” said Connacht CEO Gerry Kelly yesterday.

“McCrea and O’Connor are both outstanding players and they will add an extra dimension to our backline. Recalling George Naoupu from Japan is a big move for us, he was exceptional for Connacht in 2009, a dynamic ball-carrier and an inspirational player.”

It is a blow though for Ulster that two of its brightest and most promising talents have left for pastures new.

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