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Ulster players must shoulder blame of Les Kiss departure: O'Connor


Heavy hitter: Second row Alan O’Connor is hoping to help Ulster get back on track
Heavy hitter: Second row Alan O’Connor is hoping to help Ulster get back on track

By Michael Sadlier

He's been around these parts since 2012, so Alan O'Connor has already seen some turbulent times at Ulster and yet the last couple of weeks have taken things to a new level.

First up, the 25-year-old lock had to come to terms with Ulster's miserable exit from Europe on a dreadful afternoon for the province in Coventry and that was bad enough as the side blew their decent looking chances of making the quarter-finals for the first time in four years.

But then, last week, came the not entirely unexpected departure of director of rugby Les Kiss - the timing of this development being clearly connected with the province's European woes - to further up the ante in terms of the place being potentially swimming against a powerful tide of crisis.

O'Connor, who came up the road from Leinster six years ago, takes it on the chin regarding the less than upbeat noises coming out of the Kingspan these days with on-field underachievement now being matched, if not surpassed, by off-field turmoil.

"Yeah of course," O'Connor says in terms of the players having to shoulder the blame for much of what has gone wrong this season in the wake of Kiss's failure to turn things around.

"We're the ones out there in between the lines, if we're not performing it puts pressure on other people so we have to worry about our own jobs and do them better from now on."

His answer to all the negativity is simply to emulate what he does on the field, namely knuckle down, work hard and ensure anything outside of that remains peripheral.

Even so, O'Connor clearly wants it known that he had plenty of time for Kiss and that the Australian turned up at the Kingspan one last time last week to bid farewell to the players.

"Obviously there is a lot going on," O'Connor explains in terms of Kiss's removal, the roles now being performed by Bryn Cunningham and Jono Gibbes and the planning being made for going forward.

"But you have just got to put your business hat on and just try and take everything as it comes, you really can't read too much into things or you would go crazy so you just keep the head down.

"It's the first time it has happened to me," he adds of the potentially destabilising effect of a coach departing mid-season.

"Les and Ulster felt it was the right time to go and I have nothing but good things to say about Les.

"Les was always very good to me and he'll leave a big hole."

The hard-grafting lock, who has been involved in 15 of the 19 games Ulster have played this season, goes further though and states that the leaving of Kiss shook the players up a bit.

"It was definitely a surprise," he says.

"I had no problem with Les. I know we weren't performing up to the standards of the fans but not to get through to the last eight in Europe puts pressure on other people and unfortunately Les felt like it was time to go.

"He came in (last week) and addressed the team so it was nice just to say 'best of luck for the future'."

With all that out of the way, O'Connor reflects on how he felt post-Wasps and how things have to be righted tomorrow evening as the winless Southern Kings are here.

"That (Wasps) was a tough one to take. We just weren't good enough," he admits.

He played when Ulster beat the Kings back in November - though it was hardly a convincing result out in Port Elizabeth - and is understandably keen to swat aside the team at the foot of Conference B.

"They ran us a bit close for comfort over there and the Kings have also run a few good teams close like the Scarlets (the Welsh side only won 34-30 in South Africa in November)," he says.

"It's around 30 degrees over there at the minute and hopefully that will be a factor for us," he says with typical dead-pan humour. "They haven't won any and we have to make sure we put that doubt into them early and get the win."

• Irish referee Joy Neville will become the first woman to take charge of a PRO14 game tomorrow evening when Ulster play the Southern Kings at the Kingspan Stadium.

The widely respected Limerick native is also the first woman to have refereed a European professional match.

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