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Ulster land top stars Botha and Cooney in double bid to answer their critics

But Ferris stays on attack over Bowe's big game axe

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster Rugby have moved quickly to answer their critics with the confirmation of two key recruits for next season.

The province yesterday announced that twice-capped Springbok Arno Botha and Connacht scrum-half John Cooney will move to the Kingspan this summer.

In moves reported exclusively in the Belfast Telegraph last Thursday, the two men have both penned two-year deals.

The signings are sure to lift morale around Kingspan Stadium after a run of eight losses in 12 games culminated in a meek European exit at the hands of Exeter Chiefs on Sunday.

However, Ulster hero Stephen Ferris, who has been an outspoken pundit in recent weeks, yesterday criticised the exclusion of Tommy Bowe from Director of Rugby Les Kiss' side that lost 31-19 in Sandy Park.

The two-time British and Irish Lion and Ireland winger was fit for selection but acted only as 24th man in Devon.

"Yes, he's coming back from a long-term injury, but to see him not even involved in such a must-win game was pretty mesmerising for me," Ferris told BBC Radio Ulster.

"At the same time Les has got to make big decisions at big times and he's doing that.

"It's not working out at the minute but Europe is over and in the league there's still a lot of points to play for.

"Let's hope we can get a lot more points and get into the top four and take the positives out of this season."

Operations Director Bryn Cunningham targeted an imported back-rower only after searching through Irish-qualified options, but, despite multiple conversations, could not tempt Leinster's impressive Jack Conan to come north.

While the uncapped Kiwi Brad Shields was also looked at, Cunningham opted for Botha and the province will now have two of their NIQ spots filled by powerful South African internationals in the back-row with Marcell Coetzee set to make his much-anticipated debut against Edinburgh next month after arriving with a knee injury.

Lock Franco van der Merwe is due to move on at the end of the season and is unable to be replaced like for like, following on as he did from compatriot Johann Muller.

The latest Bok duo, therefore, will likely see Iain Henderson fielded more frequently in the second-row while still allowing highly thought of young loose forwards Marcus Rea, Conall Boomer and Joe Dunleavy time to develop.

Botha's current side, the Bulls in South Africa, admitted they could not compete with Ulster's spending power.

"Arno received a very good offer from Ulster," said the Bulls' High Performance Director Xander Janse van Rensburg, who battled hard to keep the player in his homeland.

"We have been in constant discussions with Arno about his future since 2016.

"The situation is that we can't financially make an offer close to what he's currently earning."

Botha won his two Springbok caps back in 2013 before suffering through multiple knee injuries but he has now been fit for the better part of a year and a half.

Cunningham 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."

When the IRFU blocked any attempt to retain Ruan Pienaar for next season on the basis of "succession planning" in the scrum-half position, the need to recruit an Irish-qualified nine was apparent and 26-year-old Cooney became Ulster's primary target.

The former Leinster man is well thought of in Connacht and displayed his versatility this weekend by making a fill-in start at No.10 in the victory over Zebre for Pat Lam's men.

Kiss said: "Having searched domestically and abroad for the best available Irish-qualified scrum-half, John was undoubtedly our number one target and we're delighted that he'll come on board from this summer.

"Bryn has been on the ball throughout this process and has been working quietly in the background to ensure the deal was completed successfully."

Ulster's recruitment drive is still not complete, with a loosehead prop 'project player' still expected to be signed and sealed in the coming weeks.

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