Alan O’Connor issues stark warning ahead of daunting Clermont trip

Ulster captain says side needs to learn lessons up front ahead of European opener

Ulster’s Mike Lowry is challenged by Alex Cuthbert and Owen Watkin of Ospreys during the United Rugby Championship at tyhe Swansea.com Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho

Ulster’s Mike Lowry is challenged by Alex Cuthbert and Owen Watkin of Ospreys during the United Rugby Championship at tyhe Swansea.com Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho

 

Alan O’Connor captained Ulster in their defeat to the Ospreys and then warned his team they must buck up their ideas and quickly or risk things turning ugly in France this weekend. Dan McFarland’s side struggled at the breakdown and in the scrum in Swansea.

And things don’t get any easier for the men from Belfast with a daunting trip to face Top 14 giants ASM Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel-Michelin next up on Saturday.

It is Ulster’s first game of the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup campaign, but they will go into it on the back of a loss after failing to back up their impressive URC win over Leinster.

“It’s obviously disappointing, but we’ll come in on Monday and look forward to the next challenge,” said lock O’Connor. “We have to move on pretty quickly. It’s important to take these feelings on the chin – you can’t just ignore them. We need to take our learnings and look at them long and hard.

“We need to take a positive mindset into the next game because if we don’t, we know what can happen to teams over there [Clermont]. There is no time for sobbing or feeling sorry for ourselves. If that happens, the next eight weeks will be a sad old time for everyone.”

Clermont are sixth in the Top 14, but are always a formidable opponent in Europe, particularly on home soil. Looking ahead to the challenge, O’Connor added: “Having an away game at the start makes it all the more difficult. If you lose maybe one or two games at the start, that’s it.

‘Disjointed’

“We’ve got to go for it. The scrum was a bit disjointed towards the end, but it’s definitely been a work-on for us as a pack over the years. We’re used to coming up against big packs in Europe previously, but knowing Clermont and Jono Gibbes, they will look for a bit of change there. We need to make sure we negate that pretty early.”

Ulster started well against the Ospreys and they earned a penalty try when home wing Luke Morgan was judged to have deliberately knocked on, stopping what would have been a certain score.

McFarland’s men looked dangerous, but their platform was disrupted by outstanding Ospreys backrow pair Jac Morgan and Morgan Morris, who scored a first half try.

Ulster head coach McFarland admitted his team’s forward struggles in Swansea would impact on who he picks for the Clermont game. If Ulster wilt against the giant Frenchmen as they did in Wales, trouble is brewing.

“The Ospreys are a big team and very physical and we didn’t manage to generate quick ball,” said McFarland. “As a consequence, we had phase after phase, which is very staccato. It looks dreadful and doesn’t allow you to get into a flow. It will definitely play into selection in a positive way for the guys who are going to get an opportunity in Clermont.”

In the second half in Swansea, Ulster played more of the rugby but Ospreys turned the screw up front as four penalties from Stephen Myler took them home.

Hookers

Ulster weren’t helped by losing both of their hookers Bradley Roberts and Tom Stewart to injury. When Stewart couldn’t carry on in the second half, starting loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan had to return to hook. Ulster deserve credit for putting O’Sullivan back on because they could have easily have said they had no fit hooker. The result would have been uncontested scrums which would have suited the Irishmen because they were struggling so badly in that area.

Asked if it crossed his mind to do that, McFarland said: “It’s a very good question. It sort of does, but obviously you have to go down to 14 players. It’s a very difficult decision.

“Theoretically you could, but we did have a player who could play hooker so in the spirit of the game we had to put him on. The other aspect of it was we needed one opportunity to win that game and we still created four really good opportunities in the last 15 minutes. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any of them.”

One positive for Ulster from the Ospreys defeat was the return of Ireland and Lions prop Jack McGrath after his recovery from hip surgery. “He’d have liked it to have been in different circumstances, but it’s been a long and painful road back for him,” McFarland said of McGrath. “He’s a top man, a big club man, and it’s been great to have him around the place bringing that competitive spirit. He’s a Lion and brings that credibility and standing with him. “He’ll take a bit of time to get back into things, but he’s a big part of our squad.”

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