Dan McFarland has admitted that dropping John Cooney for tomorrow's Pro14 final was the most difficult decision of his coaching career.
As first reported by the Irish Independent on Wednesday, the Ulster boss has made a huge call by selecting former All Black Alby Mathewson ahead of Cooney, who has become a talismanic figure around Ravenhill.
The vastly-experienced Mathewson made a crucial impact off the bench during last weekend's dramatic semi-final win over Edinburgh, and McFarland proved then that he is not afraid to make brace decisions as he hauled an out-of-sorts Cooney off at half-time.
Being left out of the starting XV for the biggest game of the season will come as a huge blow to Cooney, who recently spoke about his ambitions of making next summer's Lions tour.
The Dubliner will be desperate to prove a point when he is called upon from the bench, as he misses out on the chance to start against his former team, Leinster.
“That was definitively the most difficult selection decision that I have ever been involved in. And I have been involved in a lot,” McFarland said.
“They are two excellent number nines and Alby is playing the better rugby at the moment.
“I feel very lucky that we, as a club, have got two nines of that quality and we are able to look to John coming off the bench as Alby did (against Edinburgh) when he influenced and changed the way the game is potentially played in the second half.”
While Cooney's omission had been flagged midweek, the inclusion of Iain Henderson has come as a major surprise.
Henderson underwent hip surgery during the summer and wasn't expected to return until next month at the earliest.
However, the Ulster skipper has proven his fitness in time, which has come as a major boost to his side's chances of causing an upset at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening. “It's terrific to have Iain back,” McFarland enthused.
“He's the captain of the club and we know what Iain can do for us in those big games. It's great to have him back in the fold.”
McFarland was adamant that he hadn't yet seen Leinster's starting team, which had already been announced and was also flagged in Wednesday's Irish Independent.
When asked if he felt resting Johnny Sexton for the Saracens clash, and starting Ross Byrne for the PRO14 final, was a mark of disrespect towards Ulster, McFarland added: “I haven’t even looked at their team yet. Ross Byrne is a really good player, he led them to a win over us in the quarter-final last year, so he’s got a history there.
“It doesn’t really matter who they pick, they’re still going to be pretty good.”
Even when his side are down on the scoreboard, Rob Lyttle plays with a smile on his face. Others would be stressed out by the prospect of yet another semi-final defeat, but the 23-year-old winger wasn't letting it get him down and, so, when he received the ball from Stuart McCloskey at Murrayfield last Saturday night, he knew it was his time to shine.