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Neil Francis: John Cooney's Ulster performances set up intriguing number nine battle

Alex Dombrandt
Alex Dombrandt
Thumbs up: John Cooney’s has performed well enough to become the stand-out choice to start for both Ulster and Ireland at scrum-half

By Neil Francis

It was a mad old game up in the Kingspan last Saturday. A 25-24 scoreline told you that Ulster may not have taken opponents Harlequins quite as seriously as they should have. Quins were doughty and competitive and showed some gladiatorial zeal before eventually standing down at the death.

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If Ulster are serious about this competition they have to win at the Stoop tomorrow night.

I have a feeling it could be one of those games full of sparkle, imagination and lunacy.

Ulster's position in the table is a lie. Munster, too, will attest to this as they look well placed also but have two away fixtures where they are going to get thumped and the weather may not save them on either occasion.

Saracens, I think, will win all their remaining games and pop up in April as one of those unwelcome party guests where the No.1 seed gets a booby prize.

Ulster can sneak in with them but Clermont will win Pool 3 and will put over 50 points on a feeble visiting Bath side on Sunday. It is only just December and Ulster's season is being decided tocomorrow night. Quins on five points really do need to persuade themselves that the chase is worthwhile.

The match in Ravenhill threw up some talent (some of which we know about) and one - unfortunately an Englishman - who is an absolute gem.

The match had some madcap, but highly entertaining, moments, none more so than the try scored by Elia Elia (so good they named him twice).

In the 59th minute, one of the guys we were looking out for to continue a remarkable run of form, put up a box kick on the right-hand side of the field near the half way line.

John Cooney, amongst other things, is a remarkably accurate proponent of the box-kick. Louis Ludik chased and didn't really harass Travis Ismaiel that much on his left wing, but the Quins winger managed to spill the ball and take himself out of the game in the same play.

Ludik latched onto the loose ball and hared down the wing. Hared is probably an injustice to actual hares because the Ulster winger got caught from five metres behind by Danny Care who, at this stage of his career, is no hare either.

The Quins scramble steamed back and Cooney, at the base of the ruck, threw a flat pass towards Marcel Coetzee who only had to catch the ball and he was in. Something special happened though which prevented the ball getting into Coetzee's hands.

Alex Dombrandt is a phenomenal physical specimen and, as Cooney's pass whistled through the air, he stuck his hand and deliberately knocked the ball on and got a yellow - that is what you would expect him to do, except he didn't.

No.8 Dombandt has that rare ability to take the zing out of a pass and, at full stretch, caught the ball one-handed. It was as if his hand was magnetic. I cannot think of one forward in Europe who could have picked off that ball at pace with one hand and got into his stride without a stutter.

Dombrandt stormed up field but then he betrayed again how special he is by the way he carried the ball. The Quins No.8 carried the ball upside down in one hand as if he was lifting a tennis ball.

The move went on for 65 metres and Dombrandt carried it alternately in two hands when he realised that a transfer to support was an option. Eventually he fed Ismaiel and, after one recycle, Quins completed the length of the pitch to score.

You can tell a player's talent from his demeanour in open field running. Dombrandt has real pace, too. It was scintillating rugby from the Londoners.

One of the most fascinating things about Dombrandt is that he was completely unmapped as a schoolboy until Wales U-20 picked him up.

It meant that the meat-heads in the academies didn't get a chance to ruin him and turn him into an automaton. From the little I have seen of him he is the best footballing No.8 in Europe and his athleticism leaves Billy Vunipola for dead - but Billy still has that power.

Dombrandt alone is one of the reasons why Harlequins could ruin Ulster's season. The try he scored in the 24th minute showed the brilliant angles he can take and how hard he is to stop.

On the watch out for talent - Ireland's new No.8 prodigy Caelan Doris was very impressive against Northampton. However, the difference between the Leinster man and his Quins counterpart is obvious. Doris has lots of natural ability, speed and power as well as being a rangy runner with great hands.

But he is a formula player and has been coached to play the Leinster way. On the flip side it is easy to look good when you play for Leinster particularly when they hit their straps. It happens maybe four times a year but when Leinster get into gear they are an awesome proposition.

Doris has been vetted and assessed properly and it seems he has the edge on Max Deegan. Deegan, though, has been expressing himself brilliantly on the field, too. The question is whether either can work up enough volition to keep Jack Conan out of the Leinster team. Remember, Conan was about to usurp CJ Stander for the starting slot in Japan before he got injured.

The golden age of No.8s came to an end only recently. Sergio Parisse, Imanol Harinordoquy, Jamie Heaslip and Kieran Read all finished their careers in the last season or two. World Rugby has not seen their like - all at the same time - ever!

We wait for Doris and Dombrandt to attempt to fill their shoes for their respective countries in the short term. In the meantime, we continue to marvel at the ascent of John Cooney. There is no question that he is Ulster's prime fire-starter.

Watching the Ulster management congratulate each other on their win, I noticed Dwayne Peel in the box and wondered how pronounced his influence has been on Cooney. The player is 25% better than last term and currently is a better player and a better proposition for Ireland.

We get to confirm that impression on Friday, January 3 when Munster travel to Belfast and we get to see who is the best scrum-half in the country.

If there is one player missing out of the full strength line-up or any crap about player management, there will be a riot.

Reserve your seats now.

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