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How senior break came at perfect time to stop Angus Kernohan leaving Ulster

High hopes: Ulster’s Angus Kernohan takes on Connacht’s Bundee Aki
High hopes: Ulster’s Angus Kernohan takes on Connacht’s Bundee Aki

By Jonathan Bradley

At only 19 years of age, injuries are something Angus Kernohan has still to get used to in his career.

A grade two hamstring tear sustained against Leinster saw him join fellow Ulster Academy men Stewart Moore, Bruce Houston and Azur Allison in missing out on the opening two rounds of the Under-20s Six Nations, while in the winger's case also depriving him of a chance to be involved in the pair of January games that clinched Ulster's European quarter-final spot.

"It's probably my first big injury in a long, long while if not ever," he said ahead of his return to action against Ospreys in Bridgend this evening (7.35pm kick-off).

"It's pretty frustrating, particularly when the team is playing so well. It's frustrating not to be a part of it, but it also makes it a lot easier knowing the team are doing really well and it gives you something to aim for when you're coming back.

"It's mixed emotions. It's frustrating not being part of it but you're really happy for the guys to be playing so well."

There was a time when Kernohan thought a watching brief may have been a far more regular occurrence than it has proven to be this year.

Having been a member of the Ulster sub-Academy last season, it seemed that would be all was on offer once again this year. A strong showing in pre-season, including a score against Wasps in the final friendly, clearly caught the eye of Dan McFarland though and the Ballymena man was soon handed a place in the set-up after Angus Curtis and Tom O'Toole were upgraded to development deals to make room in the Academy.

Had it been another year in limbo, Kernohan admits he was strongly considering taking up a university spot outside of Northern Ireland and away from Ulster.

"It's been an exciting transition for me," he said.

"I had a couple of options in terms of university, so that's probably what I would have done, although next year I'm hoping to study part-time as well.

"If I wasn't in the Academy then I probably would have been at university. I had offers at Queen's University but when I was in the sub-Academy again I was considering going abroad, that keeps your options open a bit more.

"It's been pretty crazy since the start of the season, but I'm thankful to the coaches, the other guys around me, and my family for keeping me grounded and trying to keep me focused. It hasn't really changed my outlook in that I want to come in every day and become a better rugby player.

"It has allowed me to devote more time to it I suppose. The facilities here are phenomenal and the coaching this year - I can't think of how I could have developed any better under the coaches.

"They give you a lot of confidence and the quality of the coaching is phenomenal."

Given the huge turnover of senior players at Kingspan Stadium in recent years, the two players Kernohan cites as personal favourites growing up - Ruan Pienaar and Andrew Trimble - have recently moved on but there were still plenty of opportunities to get somewhat starstruck over the past 18 months.

"I remember one of my first times going into the stadium when I was in the sub-Academy, you just kept your head down and were too nervous to look the seniors in the eye," he said.

"All the guys that are playing out on the pitch I have genuinely watched them since I was a young boy so it's an absolute honour to play with them.

"Things like walking into the changing room were really scary. In fairness to all those guys they're just absolute gentlemen and always make you feel at home.

"I remember the first time Marcell Coetzee spoke to me he said: 'What's up boytjie?'

"I didn't know what it meant but little things like that make you feel part of the team, part of the squad being with the seniors.

"Those little things, those little touches, they mean a lot and make you really feel at home. It's a really nice squad to be part of. Everyone wants the best for each other and to develop so it's been pretty crazy, but all those guys make a real effort and that makes a real difference for a young guy like me."

While plenty of attention is focused upon the ongoing Six Nations, and once that's over all eyes will be on the European quarter-final with Leinster, away from the limelight there is a real battle to qualify for next season's Champions Cup.

Last season Ulster ended the year fourth in their conference, requiring a play-off win against tonight's opposition to secure their spot at Europe's top table.

Despite their eye-catching continental success this season, the PRO14 sees them in a similarly precarious position. While only two points separate them and second place, if the season ended this morning, they'd be playing in the Challenge Cup next year.

Going into this evening, they sit in fifth place but, with Benetton and Scarlets both ahead of them and playing each other this weekend, a win in Bridgend would at least put the province in control of their own destiny ahead of a daunting finish that includes trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

"Dan always puts it that if we can beat each team, we can control where we end up in the table (in relation to them)," noted Kernohan.

"If we lose to a team, it's then in their hands whether they finish on top of us or below us so each team we beat, it's more in our control. So, I suppose that does come down to, if we win the next match it makes it easier for us to control."

Ospreys v Ulster Match Verdict

While there's no Jacob Stockdale or Rory Best, the returns of Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy and John Cooney give this line-up a strong look for this time of year. If there is a concern, it's the side's away form in the PRO14. They haven't won on their travels in the league since November but tonight seems a great chance to buck that trend against a side missing plenty due to the ongoing Six Nations.

Belfast Telegraph

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