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Alan O'Connor: Ulster are a different team to the one that was smashed by Toulouse in September but now we have to prove it

Lock O'Connor confident there will be no repeat of quarter-final

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All change: Alan O’Connor was ‘watching a different team’ when he reviewed clips of last season’s game with Toulouse

All change: Alan O’Connor was ‘watching a different team’ when he reviewed clips of last season’s game with Toulouse

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

All change: Alan O’Connor was ‘watching a different team’ when he reviewed clips of last season’s game with Toulouse

When the ping-pong balls fell in such a way that Ulster's four-game European fixture list would include a pair of games against back-to-back semi-finalists Toulouse, it was more than just scant reward for their position as top seeds going into the pool draw.

It also brought with it a second drawback ahead of tomorrow night's pool stage opener in Belfast - the need to revisit last season's quarter-final defeat at the hands of the same opposition only three months ago.

No doubt hampered somewhat by coming into the game just eight days on from losing to Leinster in a first Guinness PRO14 final in eight years, the side that pitched up in the Stade Ernest-Wallon that day bore little resemblance to the one that had reached that point of the competition with a five from six record.

Having pulled clips from that 36-8 defeat this week, the side's lock Alan O'Connor felt he was "watching a different team".

"It's a tough one, because in that moment you think you are preparing right, you think your mentality is right, but then you get to the game and maybe (you find) it is not," he said of how his team fell flat when last on a stage of this size.

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"I think as a squad, looking back at how we played Toulouse previously, watching that it was like we looked like a different team.

"So you have to learn from that and try to recognise what was different about it when you are looking back during one of the prep weeks or the week before so that the stuff that we have worked on over the last eight weeks is really able to pay off for us.

"It is important that we remember where we came from and make sure that we don't go back there.

"Obviously we've had a lot of work-ons since then and they're starting to pay off, so we're looking forward to righting those wrongs on Friday."

In response to such a disappointing end to what was another season of progress last time around, Dan McFarland's men could hardly have done more.

Having swept through their PRO14 schedule, they come into tomorrow's potentially key fixture on an eight-game winning run and top of their domestic conference.

 

After finding a rhythm that was confoundingly elusive during those early weeks after lockdown when last season's silverware was decided, O'Connor believes his side's improved form coming into this game goes beyond the standard of opposition found so far in league action.

"I think we're in a much better place," he said. "That time off, coming back from it I think we found it a bit tougher than the other teams, I don't know why.

"We've had a good start, and winning eight from eight is brilliant, but we all know how good Toulouse are and what sort of challenge they'll give us.

"They've a big pack, they move the ball well, they've threats absolutely everywhere.

"I think on a personal level, we're really looking forward to the battle in the tight stuff, and as a team we're really looking forward to be playing here again against a class French team.

"You can't be giving them a one up because once they get their tails up and they are in behind you everybody knows what they can do.

"We are looking forward to the first physical confrontation and making sure they know it is not going to be easy like it was over there.

"Because doing all the analysis in the world doesn't matter if we don't get our first up tackles right. If we don't back each other up, you can watch as much video as you want, but I think we are in a different head space as a squad which is good."

Unlike their last meeting, O'Connor, who does have better memories of this opposition having started in the 38-0 win of 2015, won't have Iain Henderson beside him in the second-row.

The province's skipper sustained a knee injury when playing for Ireland against Scotland last weekend and is set for an extended spell on the sidelines, joining a list of key absentees that also includes Billy Burns, Luke Marshall, Robert Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle and Louis Ludik.

With Henderson out, O'Connor expects to be partnered by Wallaby international Sam Carter in the second-row, but with Kieran Treadwell banned for tomorrow's game and next week's against Gloucester there is a place on Dan McFarland's bench up for grabs.

That could be filled by O'Connor's younger brother David, a regular in the position in the PRO14 in recent weeks, but who is yet to feature in continental competition.

"Hendy is our captain," said O'Connor. "He's a brilliant player, a brilliant leader and a great lad too. I think not having him is going to be a big loss as a squad but we still have the guys that have been playing week in, week out, we've good continuity there as a pack.

"(Playing with Carter) has been great, he had a tough year last year dislocating his shoulder and having surgery (and) coming over to a new club."

"But this year he is going well, getting a good run of games under his belt, the set piece is going well, him running the lineouts is going good."

"We're going to miss Hendy, he's brilliant, he got man of the match for Ireland in the last (full) game he played but we have to do without him."

The elder O'Connor sibling was in his second season at the province when he himself made the step up from league to European action, appearing against Scarlets six years ago.

Now, having racked up 25 outings in the competition, he will be on hand to offer advice should his brother be called upon.

"It's obviously tougher in Europe and it's bigger stakes and this year we have only two teams (to play) in our pool.

"It's just important that you don't let the occasion get to you.

"We play rugby every day, we train every day, but it is just maybe bringing that little bit of extra emotion and how far he has come and what his journey actually has been and use that to his advantage.

"David does a lot of hard work behind the scenes, it's not by accident that he is getting picked and playing well.

"There are lads that are keeping their head down and coming in doing the business every day, and coaches give chances to people that have a good work ethic."

Belfast Telegraph


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