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Ulster's Dave Shanahan relishing chance to fill John Cooney's big boots


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Gripping stuff: Ulster’s Dave Shanahan in action against Leinster at the RDS in December

Gripping stuff: Ulster’s Dave Shanahan in action against Leinster at the RDS in December

Gripping stuff: Ulster’s Dave Shanahan in action against Leinster at the RDS in December

With so much talk this season centring on Ulster's other number nine, it would be easy for Dave Shanahan to feel like something of a forgotten man.

With his fellow Dubliner John Cooney having found the form of his life over the past number of months, to the point where he put a serious challenge to Conor Murray for the national jersey, his provincial back-up has been very much the understudy to the leading man at Kingspan Stadium.

Indeed, with Cooney having benched only once this season, sat out only the Leinster game and went beyond the 70-minute mark on 11 occasions, Shanahan has certainly had to bide his time.

Starting against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening (5.15pm kick-off), it would be no surprise to see the 26-year-old double his season's minutes between now and Cooney's projected return to the starting line-up after his international exploits at the end of next month.

"Obviously every rugby player wants to play more," said the man who earned his 50th Ulster cap earlier this year. "Even the guys who start every game, they do not want to get put onto the bench.

"At some point you want to play more, but I do not like to think it is any reflection of myself, I think I am a better player than I was last year, even if I played more last year.

"John has obviously played so well, and there's some of those tight games where his goal kicking comes into it a bit of the time, so I am not getting off the bench or getting a little bit of time.

"Obviously I want to play. I am a competitive person so of course I want to play, but all I can do is control what I can control and play to my best."

With Cooney's prevalence throughout this season, Shanahan is right to note his game time is more a reflection of the man ahead of him than of himself. When Paul Marshall retired in the summer of 2018, the province opted against recruiting a more experienced back-up and to date have trusted the former Belvedere College man to fill the role whenever required.

"Last year, the way our squad fell, I was in a position where some older lads left who had been here for some years and I was in that position as second in line. I had a few opportunities early in the season and like to think I took them.

"Like I said, the more I played, and I have never got that much game time before, but the more I played the more confident I became.

"It is the same with anyone, you never know how good someone can be until they get that game time.

"The way you do get better is by playing, so I am looking forward to hopefully getting a bit of game time over this period. You can get into a flow of things, you can see John has had an incredible flow this year, he just keeps on from game to game pulling these miracles out of his pockets and it is great to see."

While nobody will be expecting similar heroics from Shanahan - it is more likely that out-half Billy Burns will be asked to shoulder more of a load - he will be a key figure over an important period.

While Europe was such a key focus in the months immediately following the World Cup, with interpros interspersed in between, Ulster have somewhat quietly positioned themselves well in the bread and butter of the Guinness PRO14.

While there will be no catching runaway leaders Leinster at the top of Conference A between now and the knock-outs, Ulster are well ahead of Cheetahs and Glasgow ahead of this round of fixtures, while both that pair will travel to the RDS over the next three games.

With the Cheetahs in Belfast themselves next Saturday, there is little doubt that a strong run during this Six Nations window looks likely to create a real buffer between the province and those also in the hunt to secure a home quarter-final come play-off time.

After a three-week break off the back of a 13 game run, Shanahan is aware that the side are on the cusp of a big period.

"It was a welcome break," he said. "It was certainly the most games we have had (in a row) since I have been here, so the guys were ready for a bit of time off, but also glad to be back into it again now.

"I remember this period last season, we had set a goal of getting a certain amount of points and I think we fairly nailed it.

"Obviously it is an opportunity for some to get some game time too.

"We are delighted to see guys away like John (Cooney) and Jacob (Stockdale), Hendy (Iain Henderson) and Rob (Herring), with Ireland, that reflects on us as a team if we have more guys in the Irish squad.

"But, again, good opportunities for guys here."

The break has no doubt been welcome for the Ospreys too, who are enduring one of the most chastening seasons of their pro existence.

Rooted to the bottom of the conference, there is no getting away from their struggles, but Shanahan is sure they'll have regrouped over the past three weeks.

"They have not had the season they would have liked," he said. "They have had a few things off the field and stuff, obviously they have not had the wins they would like as well.

"They have had a certain amount of time off as well, and if it was us in that situation, we would be spending that time really getting geared to this game.

"Physically they are going to be primed and ready to go, and I have no doubt their coach has them mentally prepared as well."

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