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Heaney well-versed in being outside squad gets a big chance

Michael Sadlier

With all the hype surrounding Stephen Ferris's presence on Ulster's bench last week, and eyebrows then being raised over Paddy Jackson's exclusion from Ireland's match day squad for the Paris showdown, few noticed that Michael Heaney had also moved up the ladder to become part of Mark Anscombe's plans.

Indeed, the 23-year-old scrum-half had managed to edge out Paul Marshall – the usual back up for Ruan Pienaar – and then even found himself on the pitch after the South African picked up his shoulder injury late on in the win over the Scarlets.

And Heaney is getting a rare start when third-placed Ulster cross swords with Edinburgh, where, incidentally, they lost last year in a game where Heaney came off the bench, as coach Mark Anscombe seeks to continue the side's winning run – they are so far unbeaten in 2014 with defeat last tasted away to Leinster in late December, seven games ago if you include European outings.

Securing a play-off place is very much the focus and has been considerably boosted by picking up 18 points in their last four PRO12 games. And though the encroaching Heineken Cup quarter-final with Saracens, on the first weekend of April, is also beginning to stray into conversations, the primary objective is to obtain positive outcomes away from their Ravenhill fortress against Edinburgh tonight and Cardiff Blues next Saturday.

For Heaney, tonight is a massive game as not only has it has been some time since he started in a competitive outing, but the scrum-half also needs to repay Anscombe's faith in him while demonstrating that he can be a worthy back-up to Pienaar who it is, naturally, hoped will be fit to come back into the side for Saracens.

"Leinster in August's pre-season was the last time I started for Ulster," Heaney says, "and competitively it was Zebre away last season so it has been a while."

"With Ruan out for a bit, hopefully I'll get an opportunity and get a bit of game-time starting with a good run out this weekend."

"I'm just being given an opportunity. Neither Paul (Marshall) or myself have played that much this year, it's probably not a case of picking on form it's more a case of who is going to be supporting Ruan whenever he gets back and we're into the Heineken game," states Heaney.

Though, like Marshall, not a physically imposing scrum-half, Heaney has the required eye for a gap and also possesses a useful kicking game and crisp service.

And the current Belfast Harlequin and former Doncaster player is confident that, despite his lack of big game exposure for Ulster, he will be up to speed and that there will be no issues in linking up with out-half Paddy Jackson.

"I'm happy playing with him (Jackson)," says Heaney of a half-back partnership that goes back to their days at Methodist College.

"With Ulster I played with him a decent bit last year coming off the bench a few times and the starts I had were with him and obviously we also played together at school."

Tonight will certainly be a game where Heaney needs to showcase all his playing attributes and the enthusiasm he brings needs to also be added to by another getting a rare start, a certain Stephen Ferris.

"The energy he is bringing to training is brilliant," says Heaney of the star flanker's return to fitness.

"That is what we need at this time of year, something fresh and something to keep the energy high that will have an impact," Heaney adds, which neatly sums up his own situation as well.

Belfast Telegraph


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