It was over four years ago that Johnny O’Connor last lined out for Connacht. Much has changed for both the province and player since then, but one thing Connacht supporters can expect from the Ireland flanker tomorrow night is a committed performance.
O’Connor, who left the province for Wasps in the summer of 2003, is hoping to make his presence felt as ‘an impact sub’ in tomorrow’s glamour pre-season friendly against South Africa (The Sportsground, kick-off 7.30pm).
The tail-end of his stint with London Wasps was dogged by injury and the Galway man, certain to be a key man for Connacht this season, is looking forward to starting a new chapter in his career with his second coming out west.
It all begins against the Springboks tomorrow in what the flanker terms “a big fixture for everyone.”
“I can’t wait for the game. It will be good for all the younger lads on the team that haven’t experienced the intensity of international rugby and it will be a good learning curve for all our squad to realise what it takes to play at a higher level, or even what it takes to win a competition,” O’Connor said.
“I think it’s going to be very enjoyable and we’re sure to take a lot out of the game.”
O’Connor could well have been in Belfast this week, preparing with Ireland’s World Cup squad for a final warm-up match against Italy. As things panned out, he was one of the players to be cut from the squad but far from dwelling on it, the 27-year-old is keen now to kickstart things with Connacht.
“In terms of missing out (on World Cup selection), I would have been quite lucky to have been picked as I didn’t have enough big games behind me.
“I think when you start fresh and move home you’re particularly keen to impress and gain the respect of your new team-mates,” he admitted.
“I’m raring to go, it’s a very positive Connacht team to be in. We’ve signed a lot of good players and we’re quietly thinking we can do a lot of damage in the new season.”
O’Connor left for Wasps just as current coach Michael Bradley took over the reins at Connacht in 2003. The Connacht set-up in 2007 is one which meets very much with O’Connor’s approval.
“It’s a bit more relaxed, there’s a better vibe (than there was in 2003). Michael brings a more relaxed atmosphere and Eric (Elwood) and him encourage a more open style of rugby. It’s a lot more enjoyable since I was here last, I think it was a bit too structured back then.
“I prefer a more kindred spirit kind of style – you should be responsible for your own thing. It’s run a bit better. Tim Allnutt’s the manager and it’s good to have him there as an ex-player – he knows what’s going on.
“We need to get a new gym which we’re getting now. Once we get that, we’ll be well set-up. Hopefully a few more gym staff and we’ll be about there.”
O’Connor admits there is hardly a better way to start a pre-season run of games than with a sold-out clash with the Springboks, adding: “It will be brilliant to play South Africa in front of a big crowd. Obviously I’ve never played at the Sportsground, I missed all the games when the lads were doing well and I was over in England.
“There’ll be a big atmosphere for the game definitely, and I can’t wait. It will be good for the rugby public to see South Africa. They are one of the teams tipped to win the World Cup and they seem to turn over New Zealand quite often. It will be interesting to see what type of team they are.”