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If you wear the red hand, you're an Ulsterman, says Alan O'Connor ahead of inter-pro derbies

He was the first of the current crop of Leinster men to move north, and he says everyone's welcome at Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

With three inter-provincial derbies coming over a busy festive period, Ulster's focus is very much on keeping their momentum going while, as ever, sorting out the work-ons.

Starting with the trip to Connacht on Saturday, Ulster play all three Guinness PRO14 derbies over a 15-day period and, though squad rotation is expected, second row Alan O'Connor knows that more hard grafting is required before any further talk of the return to European action can be countenanced.

"These are three huge games," said the Leinster man of the festive itinerary which, if involved, will bring him up against his native province early in the New Year in the last of the trio of derbies at the dreaded RDS Arena.

"We obviously want to replicate the attacking play we're bringing and tidy a couple of things up in the set-piece, and we need to take a bit more ownership on the defence and then bring it all against Connacht."

Yet, for all that, it's hard to completely leave behind last Friday night's bonus-point win over Harlequins which, as Wasps beating La Rochelle has ensured, will make for quite a finish in Pool One.

Indeed, two vignettes, involving O'Connor, provide an instructive barometer of Ulster's performance in a game which was a heady brew of wonderful running skills and crowd-pleasing scores, along with a collection of defensive howlers and set-piece struggles.

And, around the hour mark, O'Connor, who was winning his 50th Ulster cap, had his profile significantly raised above his usual hard grafting for two moments which encompassed both the excellent and not so uplifting aspects of the 52-24 result.

The bad-looking bit came first when Harlequins full-back Ross Chisholm burst through to run in for the visitors' third try of the night, a score which saw O'Connor miss the first-up tackle after the No.15 stepped inside, handed him off and burst clear.

Three minutes later, O'Connor made amends. After Jacob Stockdale had launched himself on another of those defence-splitting runs, Ulster's No.4 got the ball and smashed through at full pelt to scramble his way over the line for Ulster's bonus-point try.

Though this week's video session will not have been entirely pleasant for O'Connor, he will hardly be alone after Les Kiss' side managed to miss a horrible 32 tackles and lose four out of five lineouts.

"Fifty-two points in Europe is nothing to shy away from, so we're proud of that," said the 25-year-old on what had transpired last Friday evening at Kingspan Stadium.

"It was a good team performance overall but, yes, we have a few defensive work-ons, so hopefully we can just put them together.

"We just need to get our defence sorted out and if we can score 50 points, and let the other team score 10, then it would be great."

Fair enough and, with that, we move on to discuss the prevalence of Leinster men earning their crusts in Belfast with John Cooney, Nick Timoney and Dave Shanahan also around the place, while Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy are on their way for next season.

"I was the first one to come up here," quipped O'Connor, who arrived in 2012, before he sensed that more needed to be said.

"Everyone's welcome no matter what. There's loads of different cultures here, so if you're wearing the red hand then you're an Ulsterman. That's how we roll."

Delivered as directly as he plays the game.

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