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Why lack of pressure on Bath could be bad news for Ulster, explains Alan O'Connor


Full focus: Alan O’Connor says Bath could excel with no pressure on them
Full focus: Alan O’Connor says Bath could excel with no pressure on them
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Those taking the view that Bath will arrive at Kingspan Stadium this weekend with their minds elsewhere cannot count Alan O'Connor among their number.

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The English visitors to Belfast on Saturday have no hopes of progression to the quarter-finals, having lost all five of their Champions Cup contests so far, and have a key Premiership clash against Leicester next weekend.

Motivation for Ulster, in contrast, couldn't be greater, the province knowing that, after losing to Clermont last time out, they need victory to be sure of their place in the last-eight of the competition come April.

O'Connor, a starter when an already eliminated Ulster beat quarter-final chasing Leicester back in 2015, believes a team without such pressure on the result are a dangerous beast, not least Bath, who have the talent to play some Baa-Baas style rugby under the circumstances.

"They are class players and they don't have much to lose," said the lock. "They love playing rugby and they are coming over here with their coach saying it doesn't really matter what you do.

"You can throw as many 50/50s as you want, and you have guys like (Rhys) Priestland, (Semesa) Rokoduguni and (Jamie) Joseph.

"Their back rowers are class around the field as well, (Sam) Underhill, (Francois) Louw, (Toby) Faletau. They have so many threats around the place and if you give those guys licence to do what ever they want, the likelihood is they will pull something good out.

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"So we have to make sure we're on our money and if they want to come and play loose, we have to make sure we're nice and tight."

The third time in three seasons that the side have faced a do-or-die crunch fixture in round six, this will be the first to take place in Belfast, with O'Connor admitting that it's a scenario they would have been happy with coming into the season despite hopes of another game in Kingspan Stadium.

"Especially here as well," he said. "I'm looking forward to another European game at Kingspan, it's always special here."

Indeed, Ulster have won their last eight European ties in Belfast, and 12 of their last 13. As such the value of playing a last eight tie at home needs little explanation. That prospect is now remote, requiring Harlequins, themselves with no chance of progression, to beat Clermont.

If Ulster had managed to hold on to beat Les Jaunards last week, they would still be in the box seat to top the pool, their chances of finishing ranked in the top four much healthier.

As they have found out both last year and this season, to reach such a lofty perch will likely require to either beat one of the European heavyweights away from home or to be seeded alongside them in the pool stage draw.

Last Saturday showed they are concurrently getting closer, yet still have some way to go.

A more clinical streak during the game's key moments would have likely produced a larger half-time lead than 10-9, their sole try in an impressive opening a fine team effort finished off by John Cooney.

Clermont's second-half display that yielded a 29-13 win was evidence of a higher gear.

"I thought it went pretty well," reflected O'Connor. "We had a lot of control of the territory in the first-half and some of our interplay off our pods was pretty good. Obviously, for Cooney's try, that was really good interplay between two props and then (Sean) Reidy in there as well, which has been a good feature of our forward play this year.

"It was a massive challenge. Everyone who knows rugby knows what the stadium is and how special it is.

"It was an honour to play there but we would have liked to get a result."

In the end, this one can be filed alongside last season's quarter-final loss to Leinster in Dublin and, to a lesser extent, Racing 92 in Paris. Clermont's Nick Abendanon called Ulster the best team they've faced this season - while now troubling the big boys, they've yet to find a way to beat them on their own patch, something they'll need to do should this weekend yield the expected trip in the last eight.

"Obviously we're turning up with a lot of intent, and we're coming up with good game plans which we're executing because we're in those games," said O'Connor.

"It just comes down to maybe a bit of precision, decision-making or (better) execution. They're the three things that we're maybe lacking a bit, but you can't fault the intent and the mindset going over there.

"We fronted up well and the set-piece went well. Once you get those things, we just need to work on the final little percents, which is the execution, precision and maybe a bit of decision-making as well."

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