Saturday 20 January 2018

O'Connor aims to end hoodoo

Connacht out to break 51-year losing streak

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

ALTHOUGH they are just six days out from their Heineken Cup debut, Connacht will first look to overcome a 51-year losing streak in Belfast.

The Westerners have to go way back to 1960 for their last win up north and while they have lost three on the bounce in the current Pro12 campaign, Ulster's recent form is even worse as they have gone four games without a win.

Derry man Niall O'Connor switched to the Sportsground last summer after signing for Ulster straight out of school and while he accepts that Friday's trip to Harlequins is a massive game for the club, he insists they most look after their "bread and butter" in the Pro12.

"It's great to be in the Heineken Cup and everyone is looking forward to it. But we don't want to be there just this year, we want to be there every year and we can do that if we finish ahead of one of the other provinces. The Pro12 is our bread and butter and that's what we will be judged on at the end of the season."

O'Connor was denied the chance to go head-to-head against his former rival for the No 10 shirt in Belfast, Ian Humphreys, after Miah Nikora was given the nod to start tonight's clash.

However, another former Ulsterman, TJ Anderson, starts at blindside for Connacht, who also leave John Muldoon and Frank Murphy on the bench.

Brett Wilkinson starts and he'll pack down against new Ulster signing and World Cup winner John Afoa, who is handed his debut despite having only landed in Ireland on Wednesday.

Humphreys believes his former team-mate O'Connor can have a big influence on the game if sprung from the bench.

"Niall knows our team and game inside out, so he's going to make it difficult for us and in some ways," says Humphreys. "He will be recognising some of our set-ups and some of our plays and even from the bench you can be sure that he will be coming up here to prove a point."

At the start of last season, he seemed ahead of Humphreys in Brian McLaughlin's plans. But, the return to form of Humphreys, the advent of the player management scheme which insisted Paddy Wallace be afforded some game-time at out-half and the arrival of Ruan Pienaar, who can also play at pivot, meant his game-time quickly became limited.

And when Eric Elwood, whom he worked with as part of the 2007 Grand Slam-winning Ireland U-20 side -- when O'Connor was understudy to Ian Keatley -- came calling, he jumped at the chance.

"I'm very grateful for everything they did for me in Ulster," says O'Connor. "It's still home for me. You can train all you want, but the only way to improve is by getting minutes on the pitch. And working with Eric was a bonus too because you can bounce ideas off him."

O'Connor started his career in the back-row when he "had a bit of puppy fat" before switching to out-half in his mid-teens after finally persuading a teacher that his future lay there.

"My career wouldn't have lasted too long had I stayed in the forwards," he laughs. "I'm a 10 now and I think you can always improve your game. The list could be endless for me, but I'm a big believer in getting the basics right, starting with goal-kicking and kicking from the hand and even game management.

"Look at Ronan O'Gara, he's been one of the best in the business at that for years. Defensively too, things are different for out-halves. They are making much more tackles now than they were a few years ago and those things will only come with games."

And while Connacht's form has stuttered recently, just one of their four defeats this season was by more than a single score (when they lost away to Leinster by 10 points).

"I think we've gelled well considering around 16 or 18 of us joined the club this summer. That's probably unheard of. We were disappointed after last week's game against the Blues when we let them back into it after leading at half-time," O'Connor explains.

"We've a chance to put that right this weekend and we have to concentrate on that. There's no distractions about next week and the Heineken Cup. We've talked about that, we can't afford to take any game for granted."

Verdict: Ulster

Ulster -- S Danielli; A Trimble; D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, A Macklin, L Stevenson, R Diack, I Porter, N Spence, A D'Arcy

Connacht -- T O'Halloran; F Vainikolo, G Duffy, D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, M McCarthy; TJ Anderson, E Grace, G Naoupu Reps: E Reynecke, R Loughney, D Rogers, D Gannon, J Muldoon, F Murphy, N O'Connor, M Jarvis.

REF -- J Lacey.

Ulster v Connacht,

Live, RTE 2/BBC NI, 5.35

Irish Independent

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