The opening games in the new Guinness PRO14 season will offer Ulster the chance to put down an early mark believes Alan O’Connor.
Ulster start the new PRO14 campaign at home to Scarlets (tomorrow) and Edinburgh (Friday week) two sides that finished above them in Conference B last season.
Throw in two games in South Africa and a couple of Inter-pro derbies and it constitutes a tough opening.
But O’Connor, who is likely to captain the team on Saturday evening feels it’s a good opportunity to lay down an early mark.
“I think if you look back on the last couple of years, we’ve always started well with our home games.
“We’ve always gone four or five on the trot and I think we’d be looking to do the same this year.
“We are up against two really good teams in Scarlets and Edinburgh at home first.
“They’ve been decent enemies over the last few years so I’m looking forward to it,” said O’Connor.
The Scarlets won the title in 2017 and finished runners up in the PRO14 last season and also reached the European Champions Cup semi-finals.
A key aspect to the Welsh region’s success is they work at the break down and O’Connor believes that battle will be paramount.
“Guys like James Davies, you know what they’re like, I think they (the Scarlets) were top in the PRO14 last season in turnovers won so that’s a big focus for us this week,” he highlighted.
“Getting rid of them, making sure the ball is played quick away even if we know they’re not there, just don’t leave a window open for them.”
Tomorrow night also marks Dan McFarland’s first game in charge and O’Connor is happy with what he has seen so far from the new head coach.
“He’s only been here a week and a half, so he’ll put his stamp on things over time but just minute details like the ball carrier and ruck speed, stuff like that.
“Obviously we want to play a quick brand of rugby, we’re not the biggest side, so it’s just those things you can focus on.
“But saying that we want to be a good pack, we want to be a confrontational team and be in people’s faces, so you have to get a balance of both.
“You can’t play a quick brand if you’re getting messed about at the breakdown or the contact area, and vice versa, both mean a lot.
“Hopefully I get to work with Dan more, get the minute details and the breakdown sorted.”
O’Connor will be joined by another two Dubliners in the Ulster dressing room this season after Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore decided to come to the Kingspan and the look is expecting both to make a big impact.
O’Connor said: “They’re top range players, we lost a lot of internationals last year and having them come into the pack especially is going to be good for us now.
“It makes it easier for guys thinking about changing clubs to know there are guys already there.
“Like Marty said he knew 70 per cent of the squad before he even came up just through playing against them with Wasps or playing underage rugby for Leinster or playing against us over the years.
“It’s easy enough now, everyone’s sound, there’s no big egos around.”