There were few Ulster players hurting more in the aftermath of the agonising defeat to Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park last Friday than Niall O’Connor.
Two missed penalty attempts by the young Belfast Harlequins out-half – the first from in front of the posts – either side of half-time, ensured the 21-year-old didn’t get much sleep on Friday night before the early flight back to Belfast on Saturday morning.
While it was harsh to lay the blame for Ulster’s defeat at the feet of a goal-kicker who only took over the kicking duties midway through the game following an injury to Clinton Schifcofske, who earlier had missed the conversion of BJ Botha’s try, it was inevitable that the missed kicks would flash through his thoughts.
For a player who enjoyed a meteoric rise last season from the club scene to a full-time contract with his province, the fine line between success and failure in the world of professional sport hit home.
“I was gutted at the time,” said O’Connor, who is set to make his 18th appearance for Ulster against the Newport Gwent Dragons at Ravenhill tonight (kick-off 7.30pm), with both sides seeking their first win of their respective league campaigns.
“I must admit I didn’t sleep well for a couple of nights after it but I am over it now. I spoke to Humph (David Humphreys) the next day and he said not to worry as I am going to miss a lot more kicks in my career.
“It was just a mental error on my behalf, just a lack of concentration at the wrong time. I was obviously a bit gutted because those are the ones you practice for and it is easy to look back and say if we had got those kicks we would have won, but at the same, they missed a couple of drop-goals and we butchered a couple of chances as well.
“And hopefully if I get the chance tonight I can put that right. But I have moved on, I have put it behind me and am looking forward to the Dragons game.”
That O’Connor was able to speak so openly and maturely about the situation suggests he possesses the mental fortitude required for such an exposed skill.
Although Scifcofske is likely to do most of the kicking over the next couple of seasons, if O’Connor is going to develop into a force in the national squad, his goal-kicking, which was at times outstanding for his club, will be key.
Aside from the place-kicking, O’Connor attacked the line superbly, particularly in the first half when Ulster put together some of their most promising plays away from home for a long time and his punting was top class.
As he gets his second start of the season after an impressive cameo in the opening day defeat to the Scarlets, O’Connor is aware that it is now imperative for Ulster to deliver an 80-minute performance against a Dragons side coming off the back of a 50-point mauling against Munster in Cork.
With just a home game against Edinburgh to come after the daunting trip to league pace-setters the Ospreys before the Heineken Cup gets under way, Ulster desperately need a win to not only kick-start their Magners League campaign but also generate for Europe.
“The main thing we were guilty of against Cardiff was playing too much rugby in our own half towards the latter stages of the game when we needed someone to just kick it down there and let them make mistakes in their own half,” he added.
“At key stages of the game we were probably guilty of giving away too many penalties and spilling too much ball – too many unforced errors – but these are all things that can be easily fixed with a bit more concentration.”
As the man at the coalface with regard to playing the territory game in the final quarter, O’Connor admits the decision to kick ball sooner should have been made.
“At the time we were probably guilty of going one too many phases – trying to set up better kicking positions. But we ended up taking too much out of the ball, whereas we just needed to get it down there sooner rather than risk a couple of phases just for the sake of it.
“Although they marked the touchlines well, there were times when they didn’t have anyone back and we just didn’t recognise it and obviously a lot of that comes down to me as well as voices from other people.
“But again, it is lessons learned and a great learning experience.”
As for the Dragons tonight, O’Connor said Ulster had done their homework. “Munster showed us that there are probably a couple of areas to attack the Dragons,” he added. “They are maybe quite narrow in defence and soft in a few other areas and we have a few plays for them.”
You get the sense a better night’s sleep will await O’Connor tonight.