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Why John Cooney is bringing Will Addison's mantra into Ulster's clash with Bath

 

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Running on: John Cooney believes UIster have improved since their last meeting with Bath

Running on: John Cooney believes UIster have improved since their last meeting with Bath

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Running on: John Cooney believes UIster have improved since their last meeting with Bath

Pressure is a privilege - a phrase used by team-mate Will Addison that has stuck with John Cooney.

If that's the case then Ulster are one of the luckiest rugby sides in the world this afternoon.

The situation for the province is clear: beat Bath at Kingspan Stadium (3.15pm kick-off) and they book the European quarter-final spot that many have had them slated for since they defeated Harlequins twice in six days during December.

Lose, however, and they face an anxious wait, needing other results to go their way to avoid a missed opportunity that would indelibly colour the remainder of their season.

While last year's European campaign only gained momentum late, and was borne out of low expectations, this pool began with four wins from four.

Only 12 months ago, a place in the last-eight was considered a surprising success. Now, it has become an expectation.

There hasn't been more riding on a game for Ulster since the Champions Cup play-off with Ospreys at the end of the 2017-18 season - the final day of the short-lived Jono Gibbes era.

"Will Addison said pressure is a privilege and that is the position we have put ourselves in this year," said Cooney.

"We did last year as well and got to the quarter-final. The ball is in our court, we are at home and it is important for us to play well. Whatever happens, happens, but it is important that we just get that win."

The stakes are thus, of course, thanks to last week's reverse in Clermont. While it is now 31 of the last 32 visitors to the Stade Marcel Michelin in the Champions Cup pool stages who have tasted defeat, Ulster returned to Belfast believing that they could have been coming home with a famous win.

Ultimately suffering a 29-13 reverse, Dan McFarland's side had led 10-9 at half-time and were only three points adrift with a quarter of an hour to go.

"The result was similar to the Munster (away) game, being in it for 65 minutes and then towards the end they pulled away," said Cooney.

"But we were happy with how we played and we did put them under a lot of pressure.

"Possession and territory, we actually statistically beat them on both of those, there were probably a few learnings on just being a bit more clinical in the 22, a few penalties and turnovers that we gave away that could have been a bit better.

"We are still playing at that speed we are trying to play at, and there have been games where we have turned over the ball quite a lot, maybe just through a lack of communication a couple of times or even just execution.

"In a stadium like (Clermont's) you have to be pretty clear with your calls and a few things did not go our way."

The first game this season for Ulster that has yielded no return in terms of either victory or a losing bonus point, the defeat, and the disappointment it brought with it, for Cooney are illustrative of how far Ulster have to go, but also how far they have come even since he arrived in the summer of 2017 to replace Ruan Pienaar.

"I think we applied ourselves very well," he said.

"Like I said, statistically coming out of it we beat them in a lot of the areas in terms of metres made, it was just turnovers and things like that which let us down.

"I felt throughout the game that we put them under a lot of pressure, and I thought we were definitely in the game for 60-65 minutes of it. And, like I said, if we had been a little bit more clinical we could have won that game, so we are a bit disappointed that we did not come away with a win, which is probably a reflection of our mentality these days; that we are coming away from these big European games and pretty annoyed we did not get the win.

"Talking to Luke Marshall earlier on, he is pretty chuffed with that mentality now that we want to go out and beat these giants of Europe, or whatever you want to call them, but we are more disappointed than anything.

"If we had scored a couple more earlier on it would have put them under a bit more pressure, but it is what it is and that is the result we have basically."

As such, the frustration of seven days ago had to be quickly parked.

For all the frustration at ceding top spot in the pool and, in all likelihood, their chance of a home quarter, there is a realisation that the consequences of defeat would be far graver back on their own patch.

"It is important for us to bounce back and we have a pretty good record at home at the moment," Cooney said. "It's important we dust it off and perform this week.

"We take a lot of pride in the home games we play and we've had two sell-out crowds at the start of the year.

"It is easy to get up for those games and we don't want to lose that winning record."

While there is an inherent tension to the situation given the reward on offer, Ulster and Bath have already played out one nail-biter in this pool, the visitors to The Rec edging it by one point back in November thanks in no small part to Cooney's early try and requiring a late defensive intervention from Jacob Stockdale.

It figures to be a different sort of game today - despite the presence of Sam Underhill and Freddie Burns, Bath are under-strength having already been eliminated - but Cooney has warned his side must be better than they were in that first contest some two months ago now.

"I think they played pretty well then and we have probably improved since that game," he said.

"A bit of our speed set was a bit slow and we probably did not attack as well as in other games.

"I think we have come on a lot since those games.

"They have nothing to lose and are coming here with a team with a lot of good individuals, so for them to come here they are probably going to throw the ball around. As I say, they have nothing to lose."

The contrast to Ulster's own situation, naturally, couldn't be greater.

Belfast Telegraph