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Ulster must take learnings on the chin and pick ourselves up for huge Clermont clash, claims Alan O'Connor

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Caught: Ulster’s Mike Lowry is tackled during the defeat by Ospreys. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

Caught: Ulster’s Mike Lowry is tackled during the defeat by Ospreys. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

©INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

Robert Baloucoune is challenged by Stephen Myler and Luke Morgan of Ospreys. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

Robert Baloucoune is challenged by Stephen Myler and Luke Morgan of Ospreys. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

©INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

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Caught: Ulster’s Mike Lowry is tackled during the defeat by Ospreys. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

Two steps forward, one step back.

As apt a description for Ulster’s ball carrying in defeat to the Ospreys as it is for the effect this reverse has upon the impression of their season.

A week on from the high of securing a first win away to old foes Leinster since 2013 and the northern province were shunted down a peg or two with a dispiriting day out in west Wales.

Two-thirds of the ball counted for little as the hosts stopped Ulster runners short of the gain-line time and time again, giving the impression of a side running into a brick wall.

Come full-time and Dan McFarland must have felt like banging his head against one.

For all the deserved plaudits, and more importantly momentum, generated by their triumph in the RDS, sandwiched between two defeats it now has the appearance of a prime cut of meat between two particularly stale slices of bread.

Two losses in their last three, spread across six weeks and three calendar months, mean that the side head into European action this weekend having already matched their tally of league defeats from the entirety of last season.

Stand-in skipper Alan O’Connor, as forthright a player as the province have in their ranks, knows that the contrast of the past two weekends will have many thinking this is nothing more than a case of ‘same old Ulster.’

“In terms of respect from outside the camp, I really don’t put too much weight into it,” said the Iock.

“I look for the respect in our group and we have a respect for each other.

"Turning up (in Swansea) we were in a good place, we’d trained well, but sometimes it just doesn’t glue or click that well.

“Hats off to the Ospreys. They capitalised on a couple of penalties and we didn’t capitalise on our pressure in the first-half when we should have had a couple of tries.”

While Ulster were favourites going in, and had more than enough opportunities to secure the expected victory, to lose at the Swansea.com Stadium is no outlier in and of itself. Munster came a cropper here before the international break and the region who are now fourth in the table are improving under Toby Booth following a listless few years.

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The timing for Ulster, though, could hardly be worse.

With this week bringing the start of another Champions Cup campaign, they have what on paper appears to be their toughest assignment first up with a trip to Top 14 giants Clermont.

While the famed Stade Marcel Michelin may not be as impregnable a fortress as it once was, it is still only a small band of teams who win there each season. Les Jaunards, now under Ulster’s former head coach Jono Gibbes, did open their campaign with a rare home defeat to Castres but the likes of La Rochelle, Racing 92 and Toulon have all been beaten since. Their own tune-up went considerably better than Ulster’s too with victory over Biarritz on Saturday taking them back into the all-important play-off places.

Three times beaten finalists in this competition, the side replete with French internationals are sure to be a huge challenge, especially with Ulster having not won in France since beating Oyonnax in January of 2016.

With this season’s format again holding just four pool games instead of the more customary six, the first game takes on an out-sized importance.

O’Connor knows Ulster will have to process this latest disappointment quickly before readying themselves for another trip to the Auvergne.

“It is important to take these feelings on the chin, you just can’t ignore them,” he said.

“Once Monday and Tuesday come around, you have to take your learnings from it. We’ll look at it hard and we have to get a positive mindset going into the next game because if we don’t, we know what can happen to teams over there.

“We have just got to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, there is no time for sobbing and feeling sorry for ourselves because if that happens the next eight weeks are going to be sad times for everyone.

“Having an away game to start is definitely an extra challenge because it is all about building momentum and if you lose one or two games that’s it.

"So it is all in or not at all. We have to go for it.”

Having been hit with a particularly bad spate of injuries at this time last year, Ulster will be hoping that history is not repeating itself.

Skipper Iain Henderson is already a massive doubt having been struggling with a hamstring strain since the day of Ireland’s win over Argentina while the province’s high-profile arrival Duane Vermeulen testing positive for Covid-19 was another blow.

With flanker Jordi Murphy yet to feature this season, Ulster’s concerns up front were exacerbated on Saturday in a game where loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan was pressed into action as a makeshift hooker after both Bradley Roberts and debutant Tom Stewart were forced to depart with injuries.

While the province have the ever reliable Irish international Rob Herring to come back into the number two jersey against Clermont, of more concern may have been the sight of Marty Moore leaving the field for an HIA. Ulster’s tight-head stocks aren’t particularly deep and their scrum had enough issues against the Ospreys with all four of their first-choice props in the match-day 23 after the welcome return to action of Jack McGrath.


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