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Ulster will right the wrong of Benetton draw when Ospreys visit this weekend, says O'Connor


Bouncing back: Ulster’s Alan O’Connor wants to get back to winning ways
Bouncing back: Ulster’s Alan O’Connor wants to get back to winning ways

By Michael Sadlier

Sometimes it's not that easy to switch off.

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A three-week break in games was supposed to be about using the time for a complete rest followed by getting out on the training paddock again ahead of Friday's return to action.

In theory it all sounds fine but, in practice, it often isn't, and particularly so if the evening's work prior to the shutdown was not deemed sufficient.

The last-gasp draw with Benetton, which came at the end of last month, ticked all the boxes in being how Ulster hadn't planned to sign off.

True, the penalty try allowed them to escape defeat, but failing to win at home was no backdrop for a week's holiday and especially against a side who are part of the intensifying battle to make Conference B's play-offs.

It was enough to create an itch for Alan O'Connor that just couldn't be scratched while being away from Kingspan Stadium.

Yes, it could have been worse for Ulster - currently in the no-return position of fifth in Conference B - and especially so if Edinburgh had managed to avoid tripping up at the Southern Kings but, even so, the failure to deal with Benetton stayed with the 26-year-old lock.

"Leaving that to fester in your mind for several weeks is long enough," said O'Connor.

"We didn't want to be drawing with them and we were actually lucky enough not to lose that.

"So I think everyone is looking forward to righting that wrong (on Friday against the Ospreys) and producing a performance worthy of the Ulster jersey," he added.

Having won just once from their last four Guinness PRO14 games does not make comfortable reading as Ulster's league form is threatening to undo all the good work in Europe, and could have serious ramifications on next season's Champions Cup.

And with just three home games to go, Ulster need to start winning to make the required upward progress in the table.

For O'Connor, who made a shoulder-shredding 22 tackles against Benetton, it's all about getting down to work and delivering at Bridgend where the Ospreys are hosting Friday's clash.

"We definitely all let ourselves down (against Benetton) and we're going there to do the jersey justice," he points out.

Though it's not entirely clear whether John Cooney and Jordi Murphy will be making the trip to Wales, the pair have been back training with Ulster which, in itself, has been a boost for morale.

"It's always good to see the lads and they always bring energy and buzz about the place and that's what you want," O'Connor admitted.

"You want guys coming in and adding value to the jersey and it's really good to have them back."

It's always a difficult time with the player disruption brought on by the Six Nations, and though O'Connor acknowledges this, he is adamant that the squad should be able to adjust while the same issue is worked through at the Ospreys who are currently positioned in a far from secure third in Conference A.

"It's (having players away with Ireland) not an excuse, but it does have an impact," he said.

"But the guys who have come in have definitely stepped up."

The hope is that next season's signing Sam Carter will bring much to the party when he arrives from the Brumbies and give the province another out at lock to take some of the heat off having to flog O'Connor and Kieran Treadwell.

"If I can do it (keep turning out) I don't want a break, unless they break me first," is O'Connor's reaction while, naturally, emphasising that the Wallaby second row is a quality operator and leader, as well as a marvellous addition to the squad.

He will be coming up against former Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke - the man responsible for bringing O'Connor to Ulster in 2012 after not progressing at his home province Leinster and while recognising the link, O'Connor is not for lingering around colourful tributes to the former hooker.

"I'm looking forward to playing against his side and he'll have some tricks up his sleeve," he said. "We'll be ready. We know him pretty well and he knows us pretty well so I'm looking forward to it."

As ever with O'Connor, it's all about the work and making sure he expunges the memory of that Benetton game.

Meanwhile, Kieran Marmion is set to give Joe Schmidt options at scrum-half for the remainder of the Six Nations as he returns to action this weekend for Connacht for the first time since featuring in the win over the All Blacks.

Marmion started that game against New Zealand in the absence of Conor Murray to win his 24th cap.

But he then underwent surgery a few days later on an ankle injury.

Connacht coach Andy Friend confirmed yesterday that Marmion had made a full recovery and will play on Saturday against the Cheetahs in the PRO14.

"Yeah, he'll play. He's back and available," said Friend, who added he expects Marmion to come right back into contention for Ireland if all goes well.

"His last time running out there was against the All Blacks in a historic win, so I think that he will certainly be on the radar."

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