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Centurion Alan O'Connor refusing to rule out shock Ulster victory in Leinster

 

Familiar stage: Alan O’Connor will return to his old stomping ground tonight
Familiar stage: Alan O’Connor will return to his old stomping ground tonight
Alan at Kingspan Stadium this week
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Tonight's Ulster v Leinster fixture (7.35pm kick-off, RDS) is one that already holds significance for centurion Alan O'Connor. It was in this same derby clash that seven years ago tomorrow the Dubliner made the first of his Ulster appearances.

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Replacing Iain Henderson in the dying embers of the game, Leinster had just scored their first try of the night when he was called upon in the 79th minute but their score was of little consequence as Mark Anscombe's men strolled to a 27-19 11th straight win in that season's Pro12.

Four of O'Connor's team-mates this evening in Dublin will be in the same position he was then, starting on the bench and waiting for that elusive first taste of senior action.

In contrast, the lock will lead the side out on the occasion of his 100th provincial cap, now a veteran and key member of the squad.

"I was very thankful," he remembers now of a debut that came only months after Allen Clarke had brought the Skerries native north having been impressed by his performances at the under-20 World Cup.

"There were a couple of injuries, Dan Tuohy and guys like that, Johann Muller wasn't playing, and I was in my first year with the Academy.

"Luckily enough I had played in a couple of 'A' games and did okay and Mark Anscombe gave me a shot. We had a great win. It was a good day.

"No way (would I have thought then I'd get to 100) but I am here now. I am just really enjoying it at the moment, enjoying the rugby and the buzz around the place, enjoying it with the fellas."

A second milestone to come against his native province, O'Connor admits he didn't come close to running out at the RDS prior to his Ulster switch. "Skerries Community College is not renowned in the Section C rugby down in Dublin," he joked - but captaining a side in D4 has no more or less significance for the 27-year-old than anywhere else.

"I know a good few of those fellas all right and it's good to get home.

"But I think I have been so lucky to play for this club and to play 100 games is class. That is the way I am looking at it, not where it is or anything. It will be more important as to who the guys I am running out with on the day are, and you have to appreciate those moments and enjoy them."

Bar those injuries mentioned by O'Connor in the days before Christmas of 2012, the team he was parachuted into on debut was virtually full-strength, by and large the same one that would take Ulster all the way to that season's Pro12 final.

A week later he came off the bench again, this time against Munster in Thomond Park, but it was a very different travelling selection. With Anscombe having made 11 changes, Ulster were duly beaten on the road to the tune of a 24-10 scoreline. Indeed it was to stand as the province's only league defeat in the season's opening five months.

To call these away interpros a concession would be unfair on those involved but there's no doubting the well-established selection patterns are making the job of the odds-makers considerably easier.

While Leinster have rotated their selection for this evening too, they boast considerably more experience than their visitors for whom replacements Stewart Moore, Jack Reagan, Azur Allison and Ethan McIlroy have all earned maiden call-ups.

While the reasoning and benefits of such changes at this time of year are well documented in terms of player welfare, it remains a nagging issue that we are left expecting such one-sided fare in what should be marquee match-ups.

O'Connor, however, believes that the opportunities afforded to younger players is of huge benefit further down the line.

"Most of the guys I know have gotten their debut or first two or three games around this Christmas period, so it is a massive opportunity for everyone," said O'Connor whose brother Dave will win a second Ulster cap alongside him in the second-row this evening.

"If you are an older guy playing with these young lads it is a great opportunity to help them through it and make sure they enjoy it as well. They are going to be nervous but they should not be, they need to look at it as an opportunity to kick-start their career.

"There are a lot of boys looking forward to it if they do get a shot. A lot of lads train hard all year and maybe do not get that, so the ones who do are very lucky and you have to remember that, don't you?"

Team selections aside, this is a game that will have a bearing at the top of Conference A.

Despite Leinster's unbeaten start to the campaign in all competitions, Ulster - riding a five-game winning streak themselves after recent European successes - are only eight points adrift of the conference pace-setters.

An unlikely win would maintain the battle for an all-important home semi-final and first round bye into the new year. A heavy defeat, however, and it's hard to see Leo Cullen's men relinquishing enough points between now and the end of the season to allow themselves to be caught.

"It is obviously a bit of a fortress for them," added O'Connor. "We cannot be thinking about them too much, we have to get out there with our game.

"We have our game that we pride ourselves on and we do not want to talk about them too much because that is not what we are fussed about, we are fussed about getting our own stuff right and then we will deal with them after that.

"We will be looking to eat up the gap they have created for themselves and hopefully give them their first loss at home.

"That would be good wouldn't it?"

Conference A

PWDLFAPts

Leinster77002438233

Ulster750219614225

Toyota Cheetahs7403221 14021

Glasgow Warriors730414813415

Dragons72051272199

Ospreys7106921937

Zebre71061062247

Conference B

Munster750218513825

Connacht750216812324

Edinburgh750218311423

Scarlets750214614621

Cardiff730415316415

Benetton720515119414

Southern Kings71061222286

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