Ulster players licking our lips for European double-header, says Cooney
While medals for Ulstermen at a provincial level have been few and far between of late, there is one player preparing for tomorrow's Champions Cup clash with Harlequins (1pm kick-off) who has already tasted European glory.
It has been almost 20 years now since the northern province beat Colomiers for their sole title, but when they came close to repeating the feat in 2012, John Cooney was on the other side, coming on as a replacement for Leinster in the three-time winners' 42-14 dismantling of their neighbours in a Twickenham final.
He had not planned to be suiting up that May evening in London having travelled as 24th man, but an injury to former Ulster nine Isaac Boss in the warm-up saw him elevated onto the bench with word of the change reaching the media only minutes before the game was due to kick-off.
He would replace Eoin Reddan with his side three converted scores ahead and the game already won, and today describes having a winners' medal in his possession as "lucky".
He added a Guinness PRO12 equivalent to his collection during his time with Connacht, again after an all-Ireland final with the westerners overcoming Leinster in 2016, but knows if he is to have any chance of repeating such journeys with Ulster this season then the next seven weeks are crucial.
The province will play Harlequins again next week, this time back in Belfast, before three interpros and then the resumption of European action.
A losing run, like the five of seven dropped this time last year, and the season will be in rough shape.
"They are huge and these are the games you love playing in," said Cooney of the upcoming slate. "For me and the players, we are licking our lips and really looking forward to them.
"There are two big back-to-back games, Harlequins away and then home. Then we have Connacht away which is huge for me, we have Leinster away which is the same, Munster at home, another team I love to play. For me, I can't wait, and I can't wait for the European games as well."
With a step up in performance required from Ulster's recent outings, Cooney believes improving the side's defence, which shipped five scores against Dragons in last week's high-scoring draw, is imperative.
"We have leaked a few tries in the last few games and that is something we are trying to work on. Also, our set-piece has let us down at a few key points in the last few games," he said.
"We are working on that, we are working on the collective and the individual.
"It's something we are working on a lot, but if you go back to our last European home game against Wasps, and the game prior to that against Connacht, we defended really well.
"So I think we've let teams play a bit too much against us. We have the structures in our defence so we need to make sure we are practising a bit more and I think we have this week."
While Harlequins come into this contest with one point from their two games in Pool One, they are a side of which to be wary, with Cooney's opposite number Danny Care - man of the match in the only other fixture between these sides played at Twickenham Stoop - especially dangerous.
"I am looking forward to it, he is playing well," said Cooney of Care. "It's something we have been watching, we have been watching a lot of how he plays, so we are going to have to deal with it. He is an exciting player, but I am going to try to put pressure on him.
"They have a very talented backline. They have Mike Brown at full-back, Marcus Smith at 10, Jamie Roberts at 12 who is a good carrier. They have an awful lot of good players in that backline and it is something we are going to have to negate. That's the main plan."
Ulster's own plans, however, hit something of a snag yesterday when skipper Rory Best was ruled out after a cut on his ankle became infected.
The hooker, who has already missed time this year with a hamstring injury, has been replaced in the starting XV by his ever-dependable understudy Rob Herring, while Iain Henderson will take over the captaincy.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss revealed: "He was fine earlier in the week but unfortunately it's become bad in the last day or two and we're just not able to get him on that foot.
"We've had to rule him out. Rob Herring has done a good job all year and had a good Test match for Ireland recently. John Andrew (who comes onto the bench) is really growing as a back-up, and has been fighting to get into that starting team too, so we're covered."
With Ulster having added Rory Best (right) to their list of absentees, this hardly seems an ideal time for a must-win European game, and the province will need a significant improvement on recent showings to get what they need. Given both defences, expect a high-scoring contest that Harlequins will edge.