Henderson and Cooney back to boost Ulster
Ulster have received a huge boost ahead of Saturday's Guinness PRO14 season-opener with the Scarlets as star players Iain Henderson and John Cooney are available for selection.
Having both key men on board for what represents a massively challenging encounter against last season's beaten PRO14 finalists also represents a significant lift for new head coach Dan McFarland ahead of his first competitive game in charge of the province at Kingspan Stadium.
A fit-again Henderson's presence in the squad will add vital ballast to Ulster's front five, whether he starts the game or is sprung from the bench, while scrum-half Cooney's value as a playmaker and goal-kicker was firmly established last season in his first campaign in Belfast.
As expected, the pair were not involved in Ulster's two pre-season friendlies, and it was thought that the national player management policy would probably have seen Henderson and Cooney make a later return to action due to being on Ireland's series-winning tour to Australia last June.
Even though they were part of Joe Schmidt's plans Down Under over the summer, the Ulster pair had fairly limited on-field involvement, with Henderson only playing the first Test and Cooney having a brief cameo in the second clash.
Ireland front-liner Henderson last played for Ulster at the end of April in their final regulation season game, when they drew at Munster, but picked up a knee injury which kept him out of the province's successful Champions Cup play-off clash against the Ospreys.
The 26-year-old British and Irish Lion made a rapid recovery to be included in Schmidt's touring squad but failed to feature again after Ireland's first Test defeat due to what was described as another knee issue.
Cooney (28), who was recently named in last season's PRO14 Dream Team, came on to win his second Ireland cap in the dying moments of the second Test victory in Melbourne but was not in the squad for what proved to be the series clincher in Sydney.
As well as being boosted by the availability of Henderson and Cooney, Ulster are also expected to have short-term signing Henry Speight ready to make his debut.
The 30-year-old Wallaby, who can play centre or wing, is with Ulster until the New Year after arriving from the Brumbies, the Super Rugby franchise which last season also released Christian Leali’ifano to the province.
New signing Billy Burns is thought likely to be fit for the Scarlets after missing last weekend’s pre-season hit-out at Wasps and the former Gloucester player could well be starting at out-half after looking sharp in the first friendly against his old club.
Meanwhile, former Ulster player Charles Piutau has been ruled out of Bristol Bears’ opening Premiership game after shipping a shoulder injury in their pre-season game with Connacht.
The All Black is thought likely to be sidelined for longer which, if true, is a huge blow for the newly-promoted club after the 26-year-old joined on a two-year deal believed to be worth £1m-per-season.
And Rob Kearney has warned that Leinster must improve if they are to retain their Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14 titles.
Leinster begin their PRO14 defence in Cardiff tomorrow when Leo Cullen will be without his front-line internationals, and Kearney admitted that the senior players had already spoken about the importance of not allowing standards to drop.
“There will be a huge amount of chat within the squad that what we did last year won’t be enough,” Kearney said.
“That’s where the older lads come in. We have to be better than we were last year if we are to win again.”