Alan O’Connor’s value to Ulster is calculable, measured not only in consistent excellence in performance, but also in the leadership that inspires those around him.
Ulster forwards coach Roddy Grant appreciates this dynamic more than most, and especially in the current climate, as the second line supply in the squad is severely depleted.
Ireland international Iain Henderson missed out on the win against the Harlequins and there is no guarantee yet that he will be available for the European Challenge Cup quarter-final on Saturday against the Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens. Cormac Izuchukwu injured his leg at The Stoop, leaving the ground on crutches and will undergo an exam on Wednesday, while wallaby international Sam Carter has not played since the game against Leinster.
Grant was unable to provide a definitive medical update and instead took some time to highlight O’Connor’s contribution to the cause. He said: “It’s a pleasure to train, a real treat to have in your peloton of attackers. He’s so consistent. He’s really smart, reads the game well, and speaks the leadership role well when he needs it tactically.
“He’s leading the roster incredibly well and he’s very good at leading a roster defense and a maul. There are a lot of fake tough guys out there who like to push and push them around, but he’s a really, tough, honest guy. He is great for me [in terms of] standards of conduct in training. It’s not just my voice, it’s also his. He plays very well, has gone very well in recent years with Ulster.
One area where O’Connor excels is the organization and implementation of the Ulster roster maul, a platform that not only yielded three tries in the Harlequins win last Sunday, but was also unmatched in the Pro14 in the season just ended: Dan McFarland’s side have scored more maul tries than any other during the tournament.
Grant also paid tribute to Marty Moore’s role as a senior member of the leadership cabal in this facet of the game. This was noted by Saturday’s opponents and in particular by one player, Saints right pillar Paul. Hill, who will be on the front line in an attempt to disrupt Ulster’s progress. He said: “Ulster will bring a different style of rugby [than] used to.
“After watching them last week, they have a strong maul and that’s something we have to deal with; they have good running backs and they are really organized. We have to try to stop them early, put points on the board and take the advantage so that they can’t do what they did last week and start playing smooth rugby.
Northampton should offer a closer look at Ulster credentials provided they pick a closer approximation to their first team than they did in a final and somewhat lucky win over the Dragons.
Saints head coach Chris Boyd has chosen to rest a glut of first-team players while also being crippled by an injury or two, but he’s less likely to repeat that philosophy on Saturday night.
Grant agreed that “this weekend is going to be a whole different kettle with Northampton”, stressing that the Saints have a strong maul, are well organized to defend this side of the game and are likely to have a Saracen player on loan. and England international Nick Isiekwe, David Ribbans and Tom Wood as well as several other returning players.
The match will also bring together two former England Under-20 international teammates in Hill and Ulster, ahead of Billy Burns, now Irish senior international. The Northampton prop said: “Yes, we played a 20 year old in New Zealand. He’s a vastly improved player; he was amazing back then, but he came on loads.
“He controls the game very well and it will be interesting to see how he does this weekend. The people who are pulling the strings of the game, you always want to try to pressure them because it undermines a team’s ability to play.
Grant also pointed out the influence of Burns but also that of Michael Lowry; Ulster’s back scored a fine individual try against the Harlequins this weekend. “It looks like a [Cheslin] Kolbe, he looks like a Darcy Graham, guys who played international rugby. He works very hard at his craft and I can’t say enough positive things about him.
“Like all young people, consistency will always be what you want young players to develop. Over time he becomes more and more consistent and he’s played brilliant rugby this year, ”a standard Grant hopes Lowry will maintain this weekend, along with his teammates.