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Straight-talking O'Connor focused on Ulster's final five fixtures


By Michael Sadlier

With so much unravelling for Ulster in this season from hell, Alan O'Connor's brevity is almost uplifting never mind being a rather refreshing approach during these difficult times at the Kingspan Stadium.

The Leinsterman just cuts through the potential for an angst-driven analysis of all the meltdown and, instead, shrugs his shoulders and gets on with it.

As he sees it, Ulster have five games left to push their way back into third - bringing them a PRO14 play-off place, never mind automatic qualification for next season's Champions Cup - and that starts on Saturday at in-form Cardiff Blues and on their tricky artificial surface.

The fact that Ulster are nine points behind Edinburgh in Conference B - rendering their quest to regain that vital third spot as highly challenging regardless of having a game in hand - is relevant only so far as it is fact.

Ulster's departing head coach Jono Gibbes is an admirer of lock O'Connor's direct approach both on and off the pitch and after taking charge following the departure of Les Kiss, the Kiwi showed his appreciation by throwing the captaincy O'Connor's way.

"I don't know, I just do my thing," said the 25-year-old about having led the side for the last three games, the theory being that he may still be wearing the armband on Saturday even with Rory Best and Iain Henderson potentially back.

"I say the odd word, but nothing much has changed for me in that role (captain) apart from running out in front of the lads."

And when told that Gibbes had already mentioned what he sees as the benefits of having a skipper who keeps things concise, O'Connor shrugs before his typically no-nonsense answer.

"I try not to mumble my words. Once you start talking too much, then no one listens to you at the end of the day," he said.

"So you have to keep it short and sharp and get your point across so there is no ambiguity about things."

The same short-shift is given to Ulster's difficulties and the impending exit of Gibbes at the end of the campaign back to New Zealand.

"Obviously it is tough," stated the hard-grafting player of Ulster's current plight.

"If you look at the big picture, everything can get lost.

"You have to break it all down to the little small things that really matter and then really try to focus in on that."

And then it's over to playing under a coach about to leave. Surely that can't be a great situation for the squad's already battered morale?

The player due to make his 58th Ulster appearance on Saturday meets that head-on.

"You can't be getting all angry about that stuff," said O'Connor.

"What's the point in talking about it? He (Gibbes) is gone next season but he is here for the next five games, so I'm looking forward to working with him for the next five games."

It could be six, of course, should Ulster stay fourth in Conference B - which isn't a certainty as Benetton are just six points behind - as that will then allow the province a play-off to earn the right to make next season's Champions Cup.

For O'Connor, though, it's not about gazing at the table and wondering. Everything is distilled down to just getting wins and halting Ulster's two-game losing run after O'Connor's debut leading the side saw them beat the Kings in early February.

And though it was unfortunate that the home game with Glasgow was called off due to the appalling weather at the start of the month - especially as the Scottish side will have their Six Nations contingent available for the rearranged game allied to the fact that Ulster head to Cardiff not having played since the loss at Scarlets at the end of last month - O'Connor, again, brushes it all aside.

"Obviously there is a big game coming up on Saturday to make things right and we'll catch Glasgow soon," he said.

The mood is slightly lightened by being reminded that Ulster old boy Nick Williams could well be in the Blues side which is a welcome distraction from the province's grim away record.

"Yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing Nick," O'Connor said with a wry smile.

"I think he has been banging out a few man of the matches, so he hasn't faded away at all.

"They (the Blues) are definitely looking sharp. I think we have our work cut out for us but we are ready to go."

As usual, direct and to the point.

Belfast Telegraph

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