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Ulster go in with a clean slate against Connacht, insists lock Alan O'Connor

Ulster v Connacht, Guinness PRO14 Quarter-Final; Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 5.35pm

No worries: Alan O’Connor isn’t looking to past Connacht ties
No worries: Alan O’Connor isn’t looking to past Connacht ties
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

On the surface, Ulster have exceeded all expectations already this season. After two campaigns of watching both the Guinness PRO14 play-offs and European knockouts from home, first-year head coach Dan McFarland has guided the province back to both and they remain in the hunt for silverware with a quarter-final in the former to come against Connacht this weekend.

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All this having reached what was described as "almost rock bottom" last season and losing a host of key players through the course of 2018.

Despite showing an ability to compete on two fronts into the springtime for the first time in five years, the vast improvement in results hasn't been a linear process. Sizeable bumps in the road have had to be endured, not least during PRO14 inter-pros.

While the side did manage victory over Leinster in Saturday's dead rubber to round out the regular season, back in both October and at Christmas serious questions were asked following back-to-back derby defeats.

On both occasions, one of those losses came at the hands of their quarter-final opponents.

Lock Alan O'Connor isn't reading too much into those games earlier in the season, believing the side that will take the field on Saturday (5.35pm kick-off) will be a very different one to that which suffered a few embarrassments at the hands of their near neighbours.

"A lot of young guys get chances around those periods because there are Champions Cup games coming up afterwards," said the 26-year-old.

"It's about growing the squad. Some of the same lads got a chance (against Leinster last weekend) and look what happened. Everyone's learning, we've a young team and we've been building well since then."

Connacht's victory when last visiting Belfast back in October, their first at Kingspan Stadium since 1960, certainly requires some context, argues O'Connor.

The hosts were reduced to 14 men seconds into the second half when Matty Rea was dismissed for an aerial collision with Cian Kelleher, while they were two men down for a period after Marcell Coetzee was later shown a yellow card.

"Against Connacht, we had 14 men for a half and 13 men for 10 minutes. I don't think we've anything to fear coming up (off the back of earlier in the season)," he said.

"Obviously interpros are really important, but we worry about the performance more and we performed well (against Leinster) and then the result looked after itself.

"We want to win every game and now it's come to crunch time and actually playing play-off rugby here at the Kingspan, so we're really looking forward to it."

Ulster yesterday issued an injury update ahead of the tie, with Sean Reidy the only fresh casualty from the weekend win over Leinster.

The Kiwi flanker suffered a concussion in the game and will follow the return to play protocols. More is expected to be revealed as to both Jacob Stockdale's and Rory Best's chances of playing, the latter's at present rated higher than the former's.

Should he feature, it will of course be a Kingspan farewell for veteran captain Best, as well as for centre Darren Cave.

"There's a couple of players leaving and we want to send them off," said O'Connor. "We've had a really good year so far but we're hungry for more and we're looking forward to this week.

"No matter what game it is at Kingspan, we're a proud team, everyone always goes out and puts their bodies on the line. You won't see anything less than that this week."

Meanwhile, losing to Saracens has refocused Munster minds and they have had to quickly turn the page.

"I won't say there is more hunger, I think the focus is obviously more narrow now," coach Johann van Graan maintained.

"We've got only one competition to focus on. Whenever there is two competitions, then you have to look both ways and Europe means a lot to us.

"Then you've got to get past Leinster, which not a lot of teams do. You have just got to look at their semi-final with Toulouse and you would have to get past Glasgow. If they were to get into a final - and I'm sure Ulster and Connacht would have a different view to that - they would play it in Glasgow, which I'm sure in itself would be a big help, but all of our focus is just on Treviso."

• Leinster wing Fergus McFadden has been cited for his alleged headbutt on Sean Reidy in Saturday's game at Kingspan Stadium.

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