Forwards coach Roddy Grant hails Alan O’Connor’s leadership role at Ulster

Northampton Saints will be a different proposition to Harlequins in Challenge Cup

Alan O'Connor's value to Ulster is calculable, measured not only in the consistent excellence of performance but also in leadership that inspires those around him.

Ulster forwards coach Roddy Grant appreciates that dynamic more than most and especially in the current climate as the playing group's secondrow stock is severely depleted.

Ireland international Iain Henderson missed the win over Harlequins and there's no guarantee yet that he will be available for Saturday's European Challenge cup quarter-final against the Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens. Cormac Izuchukwu picked up a leg injury at The Stoop, leaving the ground on crutches and will undergo a scan on Wednesday, while Wallaby international Sam Carter hasn't played since the Leinster game.

Grant was unable to furnish any definitive medical update and instead took some time to underline O'Connor's contribution to the cause. He said: "He's a pleasure to coach, a real treat to have in your forward pack. He's just so consistent. He's really intelligent, reads the game well and speaks well in terms of the leadership role when he needs to tactically.


“He runs the lineout incredibly well and he’s very good at leading a lineout defence and maul. There are a lot of fake tough guys who like a push and a shove but he’s a really, tough, honest bloke. He’s brilliant for me [in terms of] driving standards in training. It’s not just my voice, it’s his as well. He’s playing really well, gone really well for the last couple of years with Ulster.”

One area in which O’Connor excels is the organisation and implementation of Ulster’s lineout maul, a platform that yielded not only three tries in the victory over Harlequins last Sunday but was also unmatched in the Pro14 in the season just finished: Dan McFarland’s team scored more tries from the maul than any other during the tournament.

Grant also paid tribute to the role that tighthead Marty Moore plays as a senior member of the leadership cabal in that facet of the game. It's been noted by Saturday's opponents and in particular one player, Saints' tighthead prop Paul Hill, who'll be in the frontline trying to disrupt Ulster's progress. He said: "Ulster will bring a different style of rugby [than] we're used to.

“Having watched them last week, they’ve a strong maul and that’s something that we’ve got to deal with; they’ve got strong ball carriers and they’re really organised. We’ve to try and shut them down early, put points on the board and get in the lead so they can’t do what they did last week and start playing free-flowing rugby.

Northampton should offer a more robust examination of Ulster’s credentials on the proviso that will select a closer approximation of their first team than they did in a last-gasp and somewhat fortunate victory over the Dragons.

Saints' head coach Chris Boyd elected to rest a glut of first-team players while also handicapped by one or two injuries but is less likely to repeat that philosophy on Saturday night.

Grant accepted that "this weekend is going to be a totally different kettle of fish with Northampton," pointing out that the Saints possessed a strong maul, were well organised in defending that facet of the game and were likely to have on-loans Saracens player and England international Nick Isiekwe, David Ribbans and Tom Wood as well as several others players back for the match.

The game will also reunite two former England under-20 international teammates in Hill and Ulster outhalf Billy Burns, now an Ireland senior international. The Northampton prop said: "Yeah, we played a year of 20s over in New Zealand. He's a vastly improved player; he was amazing back then, but he's come on loads.

“He controls the game really well and it’ll be interesting to see how he goes at the weekend. The people that are pulling the strings of the game, you always want to try and apply pressure on them because that undermines a team’s ability to play.”

Grant also singled out Burns's influence but also that of Michael Lowry; the Ulster fullback scored a fine individual try against Harlequins at the weekend. "He looks like a [Cheslin] Kolbe, he looks like a Darcy Graham, guys who played international rugby. He works really hard at his craft and I can't say enough positive things about him.

“Like all the young guys as well, consistency is always going to be the thing you want young players to develop. With time, he’s getting more and more consistent and he’s played some brilliant rugby this year,” a standard Grant hopes that Lowry will maintain this weekend, along with his team-mates.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer