Ulster 41 - 17 Edinburgh: McKinney has seized his golden moment
Had Jonny Sexton been able to persuade Ireland coach Joe Schmidt of his fitness to face the All Blacks a little sooner, the chances are that Ulster's man of the match in Friday night's five-try victory over Edinburgh would not have started in that romp.
As it was, Schmidt kept Paddy Jackson on hold until Friday morning, at which stage Sexton finally managed to convince the Irish coaching staff that he had recovered from the hamstring tweak he suffered against Australia. At that, Jackson was deemed surplus to requirements, with Ian Madigan named as a replacement in view of his versatility.
By that stage Ulster had been forced into making a decision as to who would wear 10 against Edinburgh and James McKinney got the nod.
Boy, did he make the most of his rare opportunity. An impeccable seven out of seven off the tee – five conversions and two penalties – plus a try which capped a 21-point man of the match performance was a perfect example of seizing the moment.
The Campbell College-honed former Ulster and Irish Schools outside-half, who also represented Ireland in the 2010 and 2011 Under 20s Rugby World Championships, reminded the watching Ravenhill faithful of what he offers. Clearly, the 22-year-old's time in England with Rotherham last season was well spent.
Those 21 points saw McKinney come of age as an Ulster senior and his timing could not have been better, for with the unfortunate Stuart Olding now out for the season after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, evidence of a good back-up player for Jackson certainly was needed. On Friday night the Ulster supporters got it.
McKinney's endearing post-match modesty was that of a young man who is just happy to be back representing his province. Asked about his flawless exhibition of place kicking, he admitted there had been work done on it during the week.
"I did a wee bit with coach Neil Doak, and obviously worked hard on that," he said.
And expressing his delight at having made the starting line-up he added: "It was nice to get a game. I'm just thoroughly enjoying being back here with Ulster.
"Every minute I'm just learning from the likes of Mark Anscombe and Neil and the back room staff. I'm just trying to progress and develop, so it was nice to get a run-out and nice to get a win as well."
Pointing to the experienced players who had been around him in the match, he said they had helped him "massively".
"Obviously up front, the likes of John Afoa and a few of those boys, and then to have that experience coming back from Ireland (Luke Marshall, Darren Cave and Dan Tuohy) – it's probably not great for them but from my point of view it was handy to have them there to help me out," he said.
As for his decision to return from Rotherham, he confirmed his total satisfaction on that count by saying: "I'm obviously an Ulsterman and I want to play for Ulster, so it's nice to be involved."
Two-try hero Craig Gilroy was equally pleased to taste action for the first time since October 4.
"I was really happy to get back and playing. I've really missed it to be honest," Gilroy said. "I'd spent enough time out with my groin and then I came back and did my ankle so I was just really excited to get my hands on the ball and play at Ravenhill again.
"I wasn't really worrying too much about how my performance was going to be – I just wanted to get back out again."
Meanwhile, coach Anscombe confirmed that Stephen Ferris – who last played in October 2012 – has no chance of returning to action before mid-January.
Asked if there was any possibility of Ferris playing in remaining Heineken Cup pool games, the coach replied: "Not this side of Christmas or the January ones."