South African sides will shine in PRO14 given time, says Ulster hero Cooney
If not for the boot of John Cooney, Ulster's day of travel to South Africa tomorrow may well have felt a good deal longer.
Thanks to the scrum-half's late heroics against both Scarlets and Edinburgh, twice kicking his side to victory in the final minute, Dan McFarland's much-changed outfit sit two from two to begin the Guinness PRO14 campaign and can travel to the southern hemisphere with real confidence that their season will still be in good shape when they return to Belfast a week and a half from now.
In stark contrast, the two South African sides - in their second year in the cross-border competition - have failed to get off to a bright start.
Ahead of their meeting with Ulster on Sunday, the Southern Kings, who won only once in their inaugural campaign, have lost to both Zebre and Dragons, although have at least banked two bonus points in defeat.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, made the play-offs last season but have endured heavy defeats to Munster and the Ospreys.
While the Bloemfontein outfit will expect to be much better at home - they welcome Glasgow this weekend before hosting Ulster next Friday - the early returns on the expansion experiment have left plenty to wonder whether the financial boost from the new sides can offset the dilution of the product if neither prove to be competitive.
Cooney is one who believes patience is the key.
"It's like when the Italian teams joined," he said. "Look at how competitive Treviso are now.
"You just want them to get more competitive. Cheetahs lost a lot of players over the summer, and you can't really go off just their start because they're different at home. In South Africa, they're going to be tough, it's a lot harder to play in Bloemfontein with the altitude.
"Southern Kings, with a new sponsorship deal they're going to attract a few players as well, so both teams will improve.
"It's good to have that diversity and it's nice to have that trip to South Africa each year, the weather probably being a bit better than here. It's enjoyable.
"There's a lot of South African players playing in Europe and in Ireland anyway, so it's been a good addition in that way."
With it expected to be confirmed that more will be making the switch, Cooney believes it's a case of more the merrier.
"If there's a demand from the supporters and the South African population then I don't see why they wouldn't (add more teams)," he said. "They can add a new dimension to the league and they've been playing a good expansive brand of rugby."
With Ulster having played just once in South Africa last year, the opportunity to travel for an extended period this time is one Cooney is relishing, and he believes the time away will be of real benefit to a squad that has had heavy personnel change.
"Chatting to a few of the lads last year, the likes of Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble, they said it was some of the most fun they'd had with Ulster," he said. "It's nice to have that trip where everyone is together, having the craic. It brings everyone closer.
"It's good for Dan (McFarland) and new players. I found last season when I came that going away was the best thing that happened. I felt a lot better coming home than going out, knowing everyone that bit better."
Cooney will hope the time in South Africa sees him continue his rich vein of form. The next time he is on Irish soil, the autumn internationals will be a little over a month away.
With Conor Murray's status uncertain, the former Leinster and Connacht man will surely hope to add to the limited time he's spent in a green jersey.
Joe Schmidt gave him his first cap against Japan in the summer of 2017 but, despite his provincial form, he did not see any further action until the second Test against Australia in June.
"I'm not sure what the story with Conor is, he may be fine by November," he said.
"Luke McGrath is playing well and Kieran Marmion is back now too. That's what Joe wants, for us all to be putting the pressure on because that's what will make us play better and better.
"It was frustrating the amount I played (last summer), but in November I was frustrated I didn't make it and with the Six Nations squad I was annoyed as well. All I could do was play well for Ulster.
"I want to take it to another level and make that World Cup squad. Playing well for Ulster is the only way to get there."