Ulster announce two big signings for next season following disappointing Champions Cup exit
Ulster were in dire need of good news after losing eight of their last 12 games and exiting the Champions Cup with a round of games to go after their defeat at Sandy Park last night to the Exeter Chiefs.
Today they announced the capture of South African back row forward Arno Botha and Connacht scrumhalf John Cooney, who will replace the outgoing Ruan Pienaar in the squad.
As revealed in the Irish Independent last week, Botha will join at the end of the 2017 Super Rugby campaign. He will join the Province on a two-year deal.
Botha, who can operate either as a flanker or number eight, has made 46 Super Rugby appearances for the Bulls. He is currently vice-captain for the franchise, where he has spent his entire professional career.
The 25-year-old captained South Africa U20s in the 2011 World Championships in Italy and was also named as their Player of the Year after a string of impressive performances.
He made his debut for the Springboks against Italy in June 2013, but suffered a knee injury just four minutes into his second test, against Scotland, later that month.
Botha has been in superb form over the past couple of seasons and he captained the Blue Bulls as they made the final of last year's Currie Cup, South Africa's premier domestic competition.
Commenting on Botha's arrival, Director of Rugby Les Kiss said: "Arno was tipped to be a future Springboks captain from a young age but his career was somewhat curtailed by injuries after he made his international debut in 2013. Those injuries are behind him now and he has regained his best form over the past 12 months.
"His leadership and abrasiveness will be key attributes for us over the next couple of seasons. He is very aggressive in attack and his ability to get over the gainline will be especially good for us. Arno is also strong in defence, he's a nuisance at the breakdown and he's a good lineout option, so he has a very well-rounded game.
"He is an ambitious young man and he is determined to make an impact with us. He is a serious competitor who is willing to work hard to earn his jersey. I believe he will settle well in our environment and become a huge fan favourite here at Kingspan Stadium.
"Bryn Cunningham and myself have been working hard to add quality and depth to our squad for next season, particularly up front, and Arno is a great addition in that respect. Marcell (Coetzee) is yet to play for us so he will almost be like a new signing too. In the coming weeks, we will announce a further addition to strengthen the forward pack, as well as the retention of some of our high-profile current players."
Cooney began his career with Leinster, making his competitive debut in September 2011 in an away fixture versus Ospreys. He then made his European bow later that season when Leinster beat Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup Final.
Cooney made 27 appearances for the RDS club before moving to Connacht for the 2014-15 season, where he has amassed 30 caps.
Commenting on his decision to move north, Cooney said: "I'm delighted to be joining Ulster. My mum lived in Belfast for a few years and she really enjoyed the city so that made my decision a lot easier.
"Les Kiss was a big factor is my move too as he's so well-respected and I believe I can develop my game under his coaching. I spoke with him at length a few times about his hopes for Ulster Rugby and it sounds like an exciting time to be involved in the set-up.
"I loved my time in Galway and it re-energised my career, but I felt it was the right time for a fresh challenge. I have aspirations to play international rugby but first and foremost my focus will be on earning the starting scrumhalf position at Ulster."
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.