I haven’t been in Galway even a month yet but it’s good to see that the Front Row Union’s “Operation Ulster” is already starting to bear fruit with the welcome return of, our favourite player, Niall O’Connor as replacement for the departing Ian Humphreys. Those early morning cappuccino’s along Salthill Prom have obviously done the trick!
It is believed that O’Connor signed his contract yesterday morning, and while it would be risible to say that his return to Ulster has been welcomed by all supporters, I’m fairly sure that it’ll be Ulster and O’Connor who’ll be having the last laugh in this episode if the Limavady youngster is able to realise his full potential this time round.
Contrary to popular belief O’Connor is much more than an out half with a boot and if allowed to play on the gain line he can be an incisive attacking player with a defence splitting pass. On those occasions, a few years ago, when he played with Ulster’s up and coming youngsters, Jackson, Luke Marshall, Gilroy et al, O’Connor had the authority, composure and ability to allow them to showcase their talents and I’m more than confident that when playing behind a dominant pack, as we now seem to have, that O’Connor has the ability to do the same on the bigger stage.
O’Connor and Jackson both thrive in an attacking game and this is something that Ulster need to develop next season and they need to be able to play the same style week in week out irrespective of who the starts at 10 and both these young Ulster players have the ability to make the back line tick, Jackson with his delightful show, step and go and O’Connor with his exquisite pass.
So both players are capable of playing behind a pack who’s doing the bullying, instead of being bullied like the last time O’Connor was here, but who’s going to be holding down the starting spot this time next year when Ulster are going into a consecutive Heineken Cup Final?
At the minute, I’d give Jackson the edge due to his all round abilities but he’ll be busy with the Ireland U20’s in South Africa this summer and will be unavailable for the opening fixtures in the PRO12. If things go according to plan young Jacko should also have a fair bit of involvement with the senior Irish side throughout the season so both players should get plenty of game time and crucially they’ll both shore up the 10 channel and play on the gain line giving Ulster a consistency of play on which to build their attack.
I for one am looking forward to seeing them both play, next season is looking better and better.