OF all Ulster’s new signings this season, Ed O’Donoghue represented the biggest unknown quantity.
The London-born but Brisbane-raised lock of Irish parents had previously had a mixed career, playing briefly in the English Premiership with Northampton and with Worcester before returning to the Queensland Reds, where his first season proved much more fruitful than last term in which he was only a fringe member of the squad.
With Carlo Del Fava, Ryan Caldwell and Matt McCullough already on the books, from the outside the 26-year-old newcomer looked like he would be spending the season providing cover for the engine room rather than making waves in the starting XV.
O’Donoghue (pictured) had other ideas however. Since making his debut in the narrow defeat to Bath in the opening pre-season friendly, he has impressed both his team-mates and the coaching team with his rugged ball-carrying ability and line-out work.
Privately, coach Matt Williams was surprised at the standards he was setting and consequently O’Donoghue has thrust himself into the heart of the Ulster pack and will win his second competitive cap against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park tonight (kick-off 7.05pm).
With Del Fava out with a injured shoulder, O’Donoghue finds himself paired with Caldwell facing a physical Cardiff pack who dominated Leinster for long periods last Saturday night in the 16-16 draw.
Ulster have the advantage of facing a side that has already played twice in the last six days, but also one with a squad and spending power that Matt Williams can only dream of.
And O’Donoghue admits the visitors can’t afford a similar performance that saw the Scarlets grind out a 16-9 victory in Belfast after a sloppy start by Ulster, both in their defence and their discipline.
“Personally and as a team we were probably a bit frantic in the first 30 minutes last Friday,” said O’Donoghue.
“It was our first hit-out and we are still getting together as a team but we should have been a bit more composed.
“We came out of the blocks at 100 miles per hour and while the enthusiasm was amazing, it didn’t transfer onto the game.
“We lacked stability in that first 30 minutes. I think that is something we have learned for the Cardiff trip.”
O’Donoghue is clearly relishing the chance to be part of a squad that is effectively starting from scratch again after the tumult of last season and a sizeable turnover in personnel.
And finding himself in a pack containing world class players like BJ Botha only adds to his belief that he can finally reach his potential at his new club.
“It is fortunate for me that I have come to Ulster at a time when I can be part of something new,” O’Donoghue added.
“We have an evolving culture here, with a new coach and some new players while the guys who are already here are setting a high standard.
“It is a very positive culture and one that is going forward and it is great to be part of it.
“I have heard BJ Botha called the best tighthead in world rugby by experienced players and coaches and his experience and quality rubs off on the guys.”
O’Donoghue admits, however, that as a pack, the forwards are still feeling their way as a unit given the influx of new faces.
“You have to get used to each others’ strengths – for example, who’s a good ball carrier and who’s good at coming through and supporting – that is something you have to feel out, but it is not something we want to take our time over.
“As an eight we are getting to know each other and hopefully will gel into an effective force.”
Ulster have not won a Magners League game in Wales since September 2006 and will be underdogs again tonight against a Cardiff side who will be wearing pink to raise awareness of their nominated charity for the season, Cancer Research Wales.
But O’Donoghue’s enthusiasm for the cause is untainted by any negative thoughts.
“Cardiff is a tough place to play and they have a strong squad but it is the sort of game we want now,” he added. “We want to be thrown straight into these type of games and prove our worth.
“An away game at Cardiff is really mouth-watering for us, especially after the disappointing defeat to Llanelli.
“We really want to make a statement.”
No time like the present.