NIALL O’CONNOR continues as Ulster first choice number 10 for the fourth consecutive game against Magners League new boys Aironi in Viadana tonight.
The 23-year-old from Limavady, Tyrone lost his way last season and found himself out of favour. However, hard work during the summer has seen him earn the vote of coach Brian McLaughlin.
McLaughlin pairs O’Connor with Paul Marshall at half-back with Ian Humphreys failing to make the bench. Apart from Paddy Wallace – who makes his first start of the season in place of Ian Whitten – the backline is the same as that which shocked Ospreys last week.
Up front, Tom Court also makes his first start this season at loose-head with Nigel Brady deputising for injured skipper Rory Best. There is a reshuffle of the back-row with Pedrie Wannenburg moving to blindside in the absence of Stephen Ferris with Robbie Diack in at number eight and Ireland’s Chris Henry making his seasonal debut at openside.
However, eyes will be on O’Connor, whose 50-metre penalty last week edged Ulster to victory over the champions.
“I didn’t get a lot of game time last season, but I worked hard during the summer with Jonny Bell and fitness coach Paul Hatton and I thought I had a good pre-season,” said O’Connor.
“Last week’s game against the Ospreys has given me confidence. I got the winning kick, but I did miss some easy ones, and now I have to focus on consistency with my place-kicking.
“There is a good feeling in the camp at the minute. We had talked all pre-season about the first game against the Ospreys and how important it would be. Thankfully we came up trumps and I’m glad I popped over that winning penalty. The team has matured a bit and I was delighted that we managed to hold on to the lead. Last season we were in a similar position but threw it away.
“There is a new hardness about the team now. That has a lot to do with the new boys coming in. Ulster have recruited really well and the experience of Pedrie (Wannenburg) and Johann (Muller) has shown through to the rest of the squad. Also Tim Barker coming back from Glasgow has definitely added a bit of grunt to the side, which showed in the win last week.
“But that performance will mean nothing if we cannot back that up this week in Italy. Aironi will be hugely physical up front and they also have a big midfield with Ludovic Mercier at fly-half directing the traffic. It will be their first home game, and in front of their fans it is going to be very intimidating. But if we play our own game we will get the result we want.”