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Our hard work paid dividends, says proud O'Connor

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Like coach, like captain, Alan O'Connor is a forward who carries himself with a certain no-nonsense style.

The Dublin-born lock is not one to use a string of words when one will do, so he was never likely to come over as particularly emotional when recalling the moment that head coach Jono Gibbes named him as captain in the Kiwi's first Ulster team selection on Friday night.

More likely to try and lead by example - as he ultimately did in the big win over Southern Kings when he shouldered plenty of responsibility in the line-out - Gibbes felt he was the perfect man to carry his message out onto the field.

"As you can see he doesn't overcomplicate things," said Gibbes, who was heading up the coaching ticket for the first time after the departure of former Director of Rugby Les Kiss.

"He's reasonably direct and cuts through the (nonsense), and that's what our whole week was about. We didn't go through anything too fancy, we just did the basic stuff and I think Al brings the mentality we need which is just get on and do your job and work hard for each other. He embodies that.

"He was probably surprised to be asked to be captain but for the coaching group, the week we had, what we needed against this opposition and following on from Les, to get it done we wanted to keep it direct and simple. Al represented that for us."

The 25-year-old, who made his debut for his adopted province in the festive inter-pros of 2012, has, in an unsurprisingly quiet fashion, already racked up more than 50 outings for the side having been the first of the current crop of former Leinstermen now at Kingspan Stadium to pull on the white jersey.

With the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Christian Leali'ifano having led out the side already this season, none were in a position to do so last week and O'Connor admitted he was shocked to get the call.

"I was a bit surprised to be asked," he said. "I was told at the team announcement on Tuesday and just rolled with it.

"I hadn't captained since under-age stuff so it was a bit new for me but I really enjoyed it. It's easy to be captain for a side that wants to work for you. We put the effort into the week and that came out on the pitch which is exactly what you want."

With Ulster losing three players to injury over the course of the game, and emptying the bench early given the huge lead, one challenge the night threw up was having to finish the game short of one back.

With the captaincy to fall back on, O'Connor could have been forgiven for pulling rank and forcing another of his fellow forwards to move out of position but in the end he didn't need to, with a few of his colleagues more than keen.

No.8 Nick Timoney was the obvious choice given his experience of playing sevens for Ireland, while it was the less likely figure of Kieran Treadwell popping up in the corner late on to bag his first Ulster try.

"I think Nick volunteered and then Tredders was out there too," laughed O'Connor upon reflection. "He got his first try in four years or something so he was boasting about that after."

More used to crossing the whitewash is Craig Gilroy, whose hat-trick against the Kings took his try tally to nine in his last seven starts.

Back in the side after overcoming a broken cheekbone sustained against La Rochelle, he missed only the European exit at the hands of Wasps and was thrilled to be back among the scores last week.

"It has been a while since we played now and there was disappointment with Europe," he said. "But it was good to be back at home and scoring tries, to give the crowd something to cheer about.

"It has been four weeks since I fractured my cheekbone so from a personal point of view it was good to get back playing and come back from this game with my face intact."

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