For any fledgling provincial out-half, there can be hardly a better mentor to have during your first full season than David Humphreys. Ulster’s Niall O’Connor has been learning the tricks of the professional trade from Humphreys for the past two years and is clearly benefiting.
O’Connor’s professional career has started at a whirlwind pace. This time last year he had just wrapped up the season with AIB League Division One side Belfast Harlequins and looking forward to furthering his development in the Ulster Academy when a call to train with the province’s senior squad came.
The Limavady youngster first appeared on the radar nationwide when he was part of the Ireland Under-20 squad that secured the Six Nations and Grand Slam double in 2007.
During the early part of this season, the 20-year-old O’Connor was thrust into the limelight with Ulster as he donned the province’s number 10 jersey in the absence of David Humphreys (injured) and Paddy Wallace, who was away with the Ireland World Cup squad.
With the coaching staff suitably impressed, O’Connor signed his first full professional contract before Christmas – a deal which keeps him at Ravenhill until June 2009.
Further recognition followed for the rising star when he was called up to train with the Ireland senior squad in Dublin, covering for an injury to Geordan Murphy in the lead-up to February’s Six Nations clash with Scotland.
He made his Ireland ‘A’ debut that same month as a replacement against England Saxons and with 12 Magners League games behind him and three Heineken Cup caps to his name, O’Connor is certainly heading in the right direction.
So will he mind dropping out of the squad to allow the soon-to-be-retired David Humphreys play his last game for Ulster against the Cardiff Blues on Friday night? The answer is a resounding no as O’Connor is only too happy to allow ‘Humphs’ a final chance to shine in the white of Ulster.
Speaking about Humphreys and the role he has played in his career to date, O’Connor said: “When I was growing up I really looked up to David. He was such a role model for me, we played the same position and he was playing for Ulster and Ireland when I was at school and I really admired him.
“Gary Longwell set up a meeting with David for me in my first year in the Ulster Academy. I went over to Newforge and we watched a game that I had played in and he gave me some advice. I was quite nervous about it but David was so friendly and genuine that I found I was able to learn a lot from him from day one.”
O’Connor, who is quite a presence at 6ft and 13st 5lbs, has been absorbing everything the veteran has told him since then with his advice helping him to flourish both on and off the pitch.
The battle for the Ulster number 10 jersey will intensify next season with O’Connor, Wallace and Humphreys’ younger brother Ian, who is joining from Leicester Tigers, all in the mix. So Humphreys senior may be a busy man in retirement with two of the province’s out-halves looking to pick his brain.
O’Connor added: “David’s influence on me has been massive. I owe him a lot and this season he has always been there for advice, I honestly think that without him this year I may have struggled.
“He gives me advice away from the rugby pitch and has made me see that I have to be thick skinned as the press attention won’t always be positive. I have to be ready for the ups and downs.
“Over the last few weeks we have been joking about what I am going to do next season when I need advice and he has assured me that I can always give him a buzz if I need any help. I know I am going to miss him!”