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Ulster duty alongside my brother was just great: O'Connor


In the family: Alan O’Connor goes on the run
In the family: Alan O’Connor goes on the run
Dave O’Connor attempts to prevent an attack
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As he nears a century of Ulster appearances, Alan O'Connor was reminded of the value of just one cap when his brother joined him on the field for the final throes of the win over Scarlets last weekend.

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The younger of the O'Connor siblings, Dave, arrived in Belfast this summer, trodding the same path blazed by his brother some seven years ago.

Prior to the August friendly in Glasgow, their only previous games together had come in the back garden - although they did appear on opposing sides in an All-Ireland League tussle - and it was a nice moment for the pair, and the assembled clan, to be seeing out a competitive fixture side by side. 

"He's deserved it," said O'Connor of his younger brother, who replaced Kieran Treadwell in the 71st minute.

"He's really enjoying himself and he's settling in well. He's living with me up here so it's nice having a roomie rather than living with myself. 

"He knows most of the guys from under-age stuff. The rugby circle in Ireland is pretty small, paths do cross.

"We started the Glasgow friendly together but we'd never played together before that because he's three or four years younger so it's pretty cool.

"The family came up, a few cousins, a few cousins of cousins. It was a good day out. 

"He only got the 10 minutes but he's delighted. He's obviously got the taste for it now, he'll be looking more. I might have to have a word with him, he'll be going after my position."

At this stage, that might take some doing, the elder sibling having, quietly, been showing evidence of a game that has been lifted to a higher level in recent weeks.

In the side since taking the place of Sam Carter against Bath last month - the Aussie import's injured shoulder will keep him out of action until the Six Nations - O'Connor has seized the opportunity.

With Carter the only Ulster squad member standing at more than two metres tall, the Skerries man is sacrificing a couple of inches and kilos in the No.5 jersey but has been finding other ways to make his impact.

Take, for example, his inside ball to Luke Marshall in the second half of that Bath game at The Rec.

After creating the opening with the pass, it was O'Connor popping up for a second time in the move when the ball was recycled. While he has always appeared a canny line-out technician and reliable operator, such a double involvement with ball in hand has not been a hallmark of his previous years in an Ulster jersey. 

"When you get to a certain age and physique, you can't really change your body shape too much," he said.

"I think you have to focus on getting the attitude right.

"Rugby now is an all-round game, you really have to have a bit of everything otherwise you can't play professionally. I think if you have one or two things that you're good at, you have to try and get better at them while trying to get good at the things you're bad at. 

"As a team we're looking to move the ball, and make sure we play quick and make sure we play fast. (Skills coach) Dan Soper is working really hard with all the forwards and we do a lot of extra skill work, extra passing. In the gym, we'll go from weights straight into passing, maybe tipping inside or outside to the options.   

"The way that's been integrated the past two years has been really good." 

Over those same past two years, Ulster have found a successful formula for the traditional European back-to-back fixtures.

Preparing to face Harlequins at home on Saturday (3.15pm kick-off) before the return fixture at The Stoop just six days later, the northern province have swept the double-header in consecutive seasons, beating Scarlets twice last year and this same Harlequins outfit in the campaign before that. 

O'Connor started both those games against the London outfit two years ago but believes both they and Ulster are very different sides now.

With Ulster two from two to start their Heineken Champions Cup season, Harlequins were thumped by Clermont in France before rebounding to beat Bath to keep their quarter-final hopes alive, while they enjoyed a good win against David Humphreys' Gloucester when back in Premiership action last weekend. 

"We've improved loads since then, we're a different team," said O'Connor. "It's not like you look back and think that's what I'm going to eat for breakfast on the day. Everything is different. 

"They'll have a different plan. They're way more organised and it looks like they play for each other more. They've brought in a good ethos, and have a real work rate in that tight-five. Even though they're big, they work their socks off. I think it was a blip, losing to Clermont as much as they did.

"They'll be pretty confident after beating Bath and Gloucester, those are two good teams they've put to the sword so it's a good challenge and we're looking forward to it."

Ulster vs Harlequins

Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Three

Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm

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