ULSTER HAVE TODAY confirmed the signing of Niall O’Conner and Rob Herring for the coming season.
O’Conner returns north after a one-year spell with Connacht where he helped the westerners achieve their first win in the Heineken Cup.
The 24-year-old will return to compete with Paddy Jackson for the fly-half jersey after Ian Humphreys’ departure for London Irish.
Herring, a 22-year-old hooker, has also had a stint with the Exiles, but joins Ulster from South Africa’s Western Province.
South African born, Herring is Irish-qualified; but will have a long way to go to even make the Ulster starting line-up with Rory Best, Nigel Brady and Niall Annett all claiming seniority in the front row.
O’Conner will be in good company as a returning prodigal son with Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson bringing to four, the tally of Irish signings at Ravenhill.
Director of rugby, David Humphreys, commented on the signings in a statement on the club website:
“Niall went away and gained a year’s experience playing with Connacht and he has now come back to challenge Paddy and Ruan (Pienaar) for the number 10 jersey. Rob is a typical South African forward who is very physical and is an accurate set piece operator.”
O’Connor will relish the opportunity of playing under close supervision of another former Irish international fly-half and was keen to express his gratitude to the opportunities given to him by Eric Elwood at Connacht. However, the lure of home was too great to ignore:
“Ulster are one of the best sides in Europe,” says O’Conner, “It was great watching my mates do so well in the Heineken Cup last season.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to training next week to see them all again. I’m not thinking too far ahead but I’ll get pre-season under my belt and then hopefully I’ll get a run out in the friendlies and I’ll take it from there.”
The signings are in line with a home-grown youth policy promised by new coach Mark Anscombe last week.
“I’ve got a lot of experience in that area with development teams in New Zealand and it is crucial for Ulster going forward that we develop our own players.” The Kiwi told Rabodirectpro12.com.
“To do that, you challenge the players, you work them, you make them feel accountable for their own performances.
“Week after week they will be watching over their shoulders if they’re not performing. We want to create a healthy environment of guys challenging each other for positions.”
With a view to continuing the province’s recent success, Anscombe is due to meet with, his predecessor, Brian McLaughlin this week to form a cohesive plan between the academy and first team.