Tuesday 24 October 2017

We know we can do better, admits Ulster's Cooney

John Cooney has impressed in fulfilling the yawning gap bequeathed by Ruan Pienaar at Ulster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
John Cooney has impressed in fulfilling the yawning gap bequeathed by Ruan Pienaar at Ulster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Quiz question: Who were the only team last season to defeat the subsequent champions of all three major European leagues (Guinness PRO12, Aviva Premiership and Top 14)?

Answer: Ulster.

Now here's the riddle. How could such a team yet again end the season empty-handed while their victims ultimately managed to sweep all before them?

Sadly for Ulster supporters, that particular poser remains stubbornly unanswerable.

When Ulster defeated the then-pointless Scarlets almost a year ago to the day at tonight's venue, it completed a hat-trick of opening league victories for the second time in five seasons and sent them top of the fledgling standings as European fare beckoned.

A stumble on opening day in Bordeaux was rescued by a last-gasp success against Exeter in round two; also in Belfast, they would dismiss Clermont in a sensational clash in December.

These significant Belfast statements of intent would, however, be undermined by a familiar second-half slump in both domestic and European competition.

While their briefly smarting victims would re-compose and lift their respective league crowns by the following summer, Ulster were never close to even threatening even the play-offs in either.

Why should this season, which Ulster have also started with a notionally confidence-boosting pair of opening victories, prove to be any different to all the others which gave preceded it?

A province with all the institutions set up for success has too often underachieved; amidst the perennial lack of progress, a constant state of flux.

Director of rugby Les Kiss has belatedly assembled a coaching team that are united, unlike those that presided for the last campaign, but he has entered the season shorn the half-back partnership that had helped atone for so many deficiencies elsewhere.

Last week's limp second-half retreat against Benetton in Italy undermined the functional opening day wheeze against the greenhorn Cheetahs from South Africa and, with the jinxed Marcell Coetzee marked absent yet again with a "knock" to his knee, their pack continues to lack punch.

Dubliner John Cooney has, however, impressed in fulfilling the yawning gap bequeathed by Ruan Pienaar at half-back and he is mindful of the importance of tonight's occasion as they face their first stringent test of the campaign against the champions from West Wales.

"They've performed well over the first two games and they've got 10 points," says Cooney (below), aware of his side blowing a potential bonus-point win last week before ending up the game hanging on for dear life to prevent a draw.

"I think we can bring a bit more attack and defence structure and if we can put them under a bit of pressure we can perform a bit better.

"Defence is one of the key structures for us so we need to make sure that we get our spacing a bit better and I think we will.

"We'll set a bit wider and get people to go out a bit wider and it's something we've been working on and that will be huge. It's a big game, we're at home so that adds a bit of incentive for us.

"They're a quality attacking outfit and I think we need to put them under a bit more pressure."

They may struggle as they remain without their Lions contingent while, aside from the injured Jonathan Davies, the Scarlets bring theirs.

Coetzee's absence robs them of momentum; little wonder the bookies make the visitors favourites.

Ulster, however, need to win games like this to demonstrate that they can realistically challenge them. Even then, though, it remains hard to trust them.

Verdict: Scarlets

Ulster - L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O'Connor, M Rea, C Henry (capt), S Reidy. Reps: J Andrew, A Warwick, R Ah You, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, P Nelson, T Bowe.

Scarlets - L Halfpenny; J McNicholl, H Parkes, S Williams, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies, R Evans; K Owens (capt), S Lee, J Ball, T Beirne, A Shingler, W Boyde, J Barclay. Reps: R Elias, W Jones, W Kruger, D Bulbring, J Macleod, J Evans, R Jones, J Davies.

Ref - Marius Mitrea (FIR) Ulster v Scarlets,

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