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European Champions Cup Oyonnax v Ulster: College boy Alan O'Connor is right man for the job

By Jonathan Bradley

When Alan O'Connor took the decision to leave his Dublin home and move to Ulster in 2012, it was weeks like this he had in mind.

One of a handful of academy products to make a real impact during the short tenure of Les Kiss, he is today preparing for the Champions Cup trip to Oyonnax and another crucial contest in Ulster's bid to make the European quarter-finals.

Such has been his impact when in the Ulster jersey, it's easy to forget that the 23-year-old's route to professional rugby was anything but straightforward.

Having been part of the Leinster sub-academy with the likes of emerging star Josh van der Flier, he did not progress and as he entered university the All-Ireland League with UCD became his focus.

The second row's faith in his own ability did not waver, however, and he found a supporter in Ulster's now forwards coach Allen Clarke.

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Having worked with the youngster at the 2012 under-20s World Cup in South Africa, Ulster's European Cup winning hooker from 1999 was surprised to learn on the way home from the tournament that the future of the Skerries man was up in the air.

Clarke quickly put the wheels in motion and O'Connor was soon on his way north to join the Ulster academy.

While the willingness of some players to represent an unfamiliar province has been the subject of increased conjecture in recent months, for O'Connor the decision was simple.

"I just wanted to play," he says. "Ulster offered me the chance to play rugby and I jumped at it. I don't know why you wouldn't.

"I'm a pretty simple lad. I don't want to sit in college doing work the whole time so if someone gave me the opportunity I was always going to say yes.Belfast is like Dublin anyway. Everybody is sound, just going about their business and having a bit of craic as well. It's dead on, isn't it?"

On the professional side, O'Connor - whose younger brother David, also a lock, is in his first year of the Leinster academy - is enjoying the tutelage of Ulster's coaching team.

"Les brings a positive energy; it's great to be under a coach like that who believes in his players and gives people chances," says o'Connnor.

"It's great to have Clarkie here as well... a familiar face that you can ask about the detail. He'll always sort you out and he's a good coach."

Having made his debut in the festive interpros of 2012, O'Connor endured a lengthy wait for another chance and grabbed it with both hands last autumn.

A fixture in the side throughout the middle months of the 2014/15 season, a niggling groin injury curtailed his progress and he spent the early part of this campaign proving his fitness.

"It's great to be back," he said. "Last year I struggled a lot with groin injuries and I couldn't really run properly for a good few months.

"You're just trying to get your body right, get that recovery right, so that when you get back you're putting your hand up for selection. It tests you, it really does, when your body lets you down.

"Rugby is a physical sport and injuries are going to happen but it's something that's really disappointing. "Once you bounce back, it's not too bad. You just have to keep yourself right and play yourself right."

The opportunity to do just that came at Ballymena, the fourth club side of his short career after Malone were relegated to the third tier of the All-Ireland League last season.

Well used to change, O'Connor has found the move enjoyable.

"I couldn't stay at Malone and Ballymena is a great club. A rugby club is an easy place to fit into if you're sound.

"I just needed to play games week in, week out, to have myself in contention. You just have to stay fit and then give it 100%. That's basically it."

With that attitude, O'Connor is ready for the weekend trip to Stade Charles Mathon and has his sights set on securing a quarter-final place for the province over the next three weeks. After Sunday's game, Ulster travel to Saracens before welcoming this weekend's opponents back to Belfast to conclude the pool.

"The quarters are where you want to be," he said. Every year the target is to get through the pool.

"No-one wants to lose a game but if things don't go to plan, like with us against Saracens at home, it's how you bounce back and change things.

"We've worked hard on that. Oyonnax will be physical, a standard French side I suppose.

"They want to beat you up and you have to deal with that first and foremost."

With that kind of game in store, O'Connor figures to be just the man for the job.

Belfast Telegraph


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