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Ulster have the quality to storm fortress Thomond, says O'Connor

 

By Michael Sadlier

It was a scruffy display last Friday night, with their fortunate 24-24 draw against Cardiff heaping huge pressure on Ulster in the play-off race, but Alan O'Connor still managed to put in another big shift at the coalface.

This time, though, the hard-grafting second row from Skerries, in north county Dublin, clocked up 19 tackles during the 62 minutes the Leinster exile was on the field which propelled him to the top of the charts as the player who made the most hits across all the Guinness PRO12 games played out last weekend.

One which stood out on the night was when the 24-year-old brought Sam Warburton crashing down to earth early in the first half before the Welshman later limped off, just as one of the potential skippers for this summer's Lions tour looked as if he was about to break clear.

It was typical O'Connor, working hard and doing the unglamorous, largely unseen stuff.

When asked about his fairly monumental tackle rate against the Blues, he looked shocked to be hit with the stat but refused to entertain it as having much significance.

"I didn't realise that was the case," said the player who moved north to Ulster in 2012 after being cast adrift by the Leinster system. He now seems firmly established as a front-line second row in Les Kiss' squad.

"It's just about backing up your team-mates and I actually fell off a couple of tackles as well and we ended up conceding a couple of easy tries."

The focus now, though, isn't on what has been but what must come in order to keep Ulster's fragile play-off hopes alive and this entails beating Munster at their Thomond Park fortress on Saturday.

"We have to man up to them or they will take you for a walk," was how O'Connor, who will make his 37th Ulster appearance, put it when addressing how to deal with the battle which awaits up front.

"They have a good all round pack, they have good ball carriers and they have a good set-piece.

"We just have to beat them at what they are good at and what we are good at.

"We have to make sure we're right on the gain-line in attack and defence."

Thomond Park is far from a happy hunting ground for Ulster, who last won there in 2014, and though the southern province - currently second in the table and closing in on a home semi-final - will be missing some big names, as well as keeping one eye on next weekend's European semi-final with Saracens, O'Connor has no truck with the idea that Munster will be operating at slightly less than full throttle.

"Whatever team they put out they will be buzzing and it will be a tough and really hard one (for us)," he said.

"I went down there in November three years ago and we didn't come out on top, (Ulster lost 21-20) and a few boys went down earlier in 2014 with a supposed half-strength team and turned them over.

"So, it is doable and it's just about us manning up."

Anything less than a victory will likely spell the end of Ulster's ambitions to secure knockout rugby which ups the ante considerably for Saturday.

"The inter-pros are the ones you really want to play in because you've known these guys since you were a young fellow competing at under-age levels so I'm looking forward to lining out against a few of those lads and we'll see what it brings," stated O'Connor.

O'Connor is ready to bring his noted grafting to this one but playing at all at this stage of the season is new to him after what has been an injury-blighted time at Ulster since he was recruited five years ago by Allen Clarke.

This season has been no exception on the injury front as following two concussions he didn't play from late October until he togged out to lead Ulster 'A' in January.

"I received two concussions in the space of a month and a half so I had to be referred to a neurologist in Dublin. I saw him for a while and he advised me to take an eight-week break but everything is fine now and it is all good," he added while mentioning that he hopes to be around next season, suggesting that a new deal has been signed.

On Saturday, though, make or break time awaits.

Meanwhile, the Barbarians have revealed the first six members of their squad for their games against England (May 28) and Ulster (June 1).

Head coach Vern Cotter has called up Australia legends Adam Ashley-Cooper and Will Genia while Census Johnston, Corey Flynn, Connacht's Bundee Aki and Facundo Isa are also included for the trip.

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