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Coetzee and Cooney get chance to stake claim for places in Ulster's PRO14 glamour opener


By Jonathan Bradley

Marcell Coetzee will make a long-awaited return to action when Ulster take on Northampton Saints tonight, while there will also be a debut for new scrum-half John Cooney.

Springbok flanker Coetzee arrived at Kingspan Stadium with much fanfare, but carrying a serious knee injury, 12 months ago only to have a nightmare first season in Belfast.

The ACL surgery he required after his final game for the Sharks kept him out of action until February, before a different knee injury just four games into his comeback ruled him out for the rest of the season.

Described by new team-mate Jean Deysel as "like a caged animal" waiting for his first game-time in five months, Coetzee will be on the bench at Franklin's Gardens (7.30pm kick-off), with Deysel, Clive Ross and Chris Henry the starting back-row.

Having earned his first cap for Ireland over the summer, former Connacht man Cooney will get a maiden outing in Ulster colours, an important step with the new PRO14 campaign now only a week away.

In what is the side's final tune-up before that curtain raiser at home to the Cheetahs, Stuart McCloskey has shaken off the hand injury sustained in last week's loss to Wasps and will line out in midfield, interestingly alongside winger Tommy Bowe.

While the Monaghan man did famously play centre during the Lions tour to South Africa in 2009, he has almost exclusively donned the 14 jersey for Ulster since his return from Ospreys.

"We used him at 13 last week and we'll use him again at 13 this week and see how it goes there," said Director of Rugby Les Kiss.

"It's going to be good to try to build that flexibility with him there again. He's in a good place.

"He has not (played there for a while) but he's enjoying playing there - on the wing and then centre as well. He's done session, on session, on session. He has trained at wing and centre.

"He has natural leadership ability and he is a statesman in the place now. A good, wise head for the young lads around him and I'm really happy with how he's been going."

Louis Ludik and David Busby will be on the wings, with Charles Piutau - who has signed a big money deal for next season with Bristol since last playing for Ulster - at full-back.

With new signing Christian Leali'ifano only arriving in Belfast on Wednesday, Peter Nelson will start at ten with Brett Herron on the bench.

Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst are the props, Rob Herring starts at hooker and Robbie Diack and Alan O'Connor are in the engine room.

Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, T Bowe, S McCloskey, D Busby; P Nelson, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, R Diack, A O'Connor, C Ross, C Henry, J Deysel.

Replacements: Z McCall, K McCall, R Ah You, P Browne, M Coetzee, D Shanahan, B Herron, A Trimble, A Warwick, J Simpson, M Rea, N Timoney, C Montgomery, P Marshall, J Owens, J McPhillips, C Patterson

Northampton: A Tuala; B Foden, L Burrell, R Hutchinson, T Collins; H Mallinder, N Groom; A Waller, D Hartley (capt), K Brookes; D Ribbans, C Day; T Harrison, L Ludlam, M Eadie

Replacements: C Ma'afu, M Haywood, P Hill, C Lawes, J Craig, J Gibson, S Dickinson, B Nutley, A Mitchell, J Grayson, K Pisi, T Stephenson, N Tuitavake, J Elliott, G Furbank, JP Estelles

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