Wednesday 17 January 2018

Brendan Fanning: Rejected by Leinster, Dubliner Alan O'Connor is building a bright future in Ulster

Ulster has provided the perfect refuge for Dubliner Alan O'Connor to fulfil his potential

Alan O’Connor’s value to the Ulster effort clearly is appreciated. They have developed his game, without trying to change who he is’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Alan O’Connor’s value to the Ulster effort clearly is appreciated. They have developed his game, without trying to change who he is’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you were to google Ireland and its accents, it's unlikely the detail would extend to how one part of a particular county can sound like the other end of the world compared to another, maybe 20kms away.

For example in north county Dublin there is a drawl unique to that region. A wholesale difference to what you might get across the border in Meath or Louth. And well removed too from Dublin's suburbia, not far to its south.

We suspect this accent would stay with you wherever you went on the planet. So if like Alan O'Connor (24) you had taken yourself north of the border - ie the big border - all of five years ago, you would sound exactly the same now as the day you filled the car and pointed it for Belfast.

And just as well. It must be reassuring for him to be slagged around Ravenhill for how he speaks, if only to know that he can go home to Skerries the odd weekend without fear of being turfed into the harbour for having turned into someone else.

O'Connor is a rarity in Irish rugby: initially he made the grade from the youth ranks; and then made it a second time having been knocked back by those he thought were opening the door for him in the first place. That the latter has come in Ulster makes him that bit more unusual.

When Ulster have their second-row complement of Franco van der Merwe, Pete Browne, Dan Tuohy and O'Connor all available, Les Kiss is picking from a decent enough deck. That luxury seemingly is close at hand, with Tuohy on the way back. And when it arrives it will be startling if the Skerries man is not still in the top two.

A former club mentor of his describes O'Connor as a beacon for lads who start off the beaten track. Increasingly punters are impressed by his performances, typified by a hard edge that makes him difficult to contain, and ask: 'Isn't that your man who got knocked back by Leinster?' And yes, it is.

"It's hard for me to appreciate because it all happened so quick, you know what I mean?" O'Connor says. "Like the last five years has gone ridiculously quick for me. Coming from the youths system you're already an underdog because of the whole schools system and stuff. And then to be put in the Leinster Sub Academy and not get the Academy, and then to get a great offer from Allen Clarke in Ulster, I was sort of jumping on it straight away. I knew I could do it."

First he had to get far enough up front to be knocked back. And that started through his local club where he was fortunate to be part of a batch of kids who developed into a strong youths team who, as under 16s, were the best in the country.

The road from there was clearly marked: Leinster Youths, and then Ireland Youths if he didn't run out of juice. At that point you get to a fork, where the schools system converges, and dominates. O'Connor well remembers the day out in Ashbourne when he was part of a youths team that beat the schools for what he reckons was the first time. "That was a huge result. Tadhg Furlong was propping and Jack Carty from Connacht was on the team as well. I remember Tadhg having gone off injured but he was jumping around like a madman at the finish 'cos we were always like the 'B' team if you like. For us to go out and beat them - that was class."

The first big shift in O'Connor's career came next - heading to UCD after school, a move driven by advice from Leinster who told him he'd outgrown Skerries who, at that stage, were not yet on the AIL ladder. In the logjam that is under 20s rugby in that college environment, he was good enough to get a few games for the senior side. "Against grown men," as he puts it.

The pieces were all falling into place. To be included in the Leinster Sub Academy is clear enough indication that someone thinks you have the potential to take the next step as well. Certainly O'Connor was coming around to that idea. He hadn't made the Ireland 20s side for the Six Nations but was included in the squad for the World Cup in South Africa. Before the squad flew out he was called in by Leinster and given the bad news that there would be no keys to the executive washroom.

"They said they were going to take one young lad Gavin Thornbury, out of school, and Tadhg Beirne, who was my age as well," O'Connor recalls. "He was playing for the 20s too. So they were going to take those two guys instead of me. I was really gutted by the whole thing. I thought I was definitely going to get in. I know I wasn't getting picked for the Irish 20s at that stage but before that all the feedback was very positive about the whole thing. Then it was: 'We're not taking you but if you have a great World Cup you'll be reconsidered.' But at that stage I was already absolutely raging so I didn't really care what they said."

The tournament would be his springboard to bounce back. Injury always opens a door for someone - in this case it shifted Iain Henderson into the back-row and allowed O'Connor into the gap. And he did enough to impress forwards coach Allen Clarke who soon after would be taking over that job in Ulster. O'Connor will always look back on those few weeks as special.

"It's a mad oul' place," he says. "It really is. In Cape Town we were driving through some really nice places and then there'd be slums a couple of metres down the road. It was madness. We ended up visiting a couple of schools and the poverty was ridiculous.

"It was an eye-opener - big time. I remember one of the boys, he gave this little kid some rand - I think it was the equivalent of like a tenner in euro, and the kid sprinted down the road and there was like 20 other young lads chasing after him trying to get the money off him. It was like proper gold to them. You had to just give them whatever you had then."

The move up the road to Belfast, where initially he bunked in Iain Henderson's spare room, went seamlessly. On a high from the reprieve he waded into his new surroundings. And then the injuries started. At first it was recurring subluxations - partial dislocations - on his left shoulder, which eventually required surgery. Then, on his return in a club game for Malone, he broke his cheekbone.

Year three in the Academy was looking a lot brighter though. Rehabbed and raring to go he did what all lads in that position hope to do: get a few runs with the seniors to get their feet under the table. Eleven outings ticked that box nicely. O'Connor could see a future. Then his world clouded over again.

Back in the day, you couldn't refer to a cruciate ligament injury without name-checking Pat Spillane - the first high-profile sportsman in these parts to dramatise it. Osteitis pubis on the other hand is less common, and is associated largely with Paul O'Connell who nearly lost his mind when it landed at his door, threatening his career.

"Man, I'm telling you that's the worst injury I've had by a mile," O'Connor says. "Dislocating your shoulder isn't as bad as that because you never know when you're going to get better. You could be feeling grand one day - I'm grand, ready to go - and then you do a session and you wouldn't be able to lift yourself out of the bed after it without being dragged. I probably took from February until pre- season off, and even at that it was hard to get back into things.

"Everyone gets injured and everyone has low points. It's hard to explain but you have to literally take things week by week. Even at that, day by day sometimes. You can't think too far ahead at all, and I'm quite good at that - I'm not great at thinking into the future. It's really hard when you don't seem to be getting better and you're doing the same thing over and over, but if you can focus on the big games you've played and think: 'I can't wait to do that again.' The feeling of running out and winning a properly big game."

To have been a part of Ulster's win in Toulouse last season - a properly big game - puts him in an elite club in Irish rugby history. Friday night's win in Scotstoun was a pretty big step too, and in a hot and heavy contest, O'Connor was typically abrasive. His value to the Ulster effort clearly is appreciated. They have developed his game, without trying to change who he is. Or, indeed, how he sounds.

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