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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

Boost for new coach McFarland as Ireland duo available for Ulster's season-opener

John Cooney and Iain Henderson are set to feature against Scarlets on Saturday.

ULSTER HAVE BEEN boosted by the news both John Cooney and Iain Henderson are available for their season-opener against Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening [KO 5.15pm, eir Sport].

Ulster’s John Cooney Cooney had a hugely impressive debut season with Ulster. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The Ireland duo have been released to play in Dan McFarland’s first game in charge of the northern province against last year’s Pro14 runners-up having been part of Joe Schmidt’s squad for the summer tour of Australia.

Cooney, who enjoyed a hugely impressive debut season in Belfast, was rewarded for his consistently excellent performances with a second cap in the dying moments of the Test victory over the Wallabies in Melbourne, while Henderson started the first Test in Brisbane.

Their availability at this early stage of the campaign is a major fillip for new coach McFarland as Ulster look to hit the ground running following a turbulent 12 months both on and off the field.

Cooney was Ulster’s standout performer last term as his playmaking ability and reliable placekicking saw the scrum-half make an instant impression in Belfast, before recently being named in the Pro14′s 2017/18 dream team.

Henderson, meanwhile, has not played for the northern province since the end of April after injuring his knee in the final game of the regular season against Munster. 

The second row made a quick recovery to be fit in time for Ireland’s tour Down Under, but his on-field involvement during the famous series win over Australia was limited as he featured only in the opening Test. 

When asked about player availability earlier this week, McFarland was keen to keep his cards close to his chest, but short-term signing Henry Speight is also in line to make his Ulster debut against Scarlets.

“We’ll announce (injuries and availability) when we announce the team,” he said. “I’ve had conversations (with Joe), there’s a fair amount of forward planning on selection. 

Iain Henderson Henderson started the first Test against Australia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They’re long seasons and working out how we’ll use the squad is very important. Joe is obviously helpful on that and has a lot of experience with it. I can learn from that but ultimately the coaches and myself sit down and play the best way forward for Ulster.”

Captain Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale are both still unavailable through injury, while Ulster fans will have to wait to see Jordi Murphy make his debut for the province after he played in all three summer Tests.

After securing Champions Cup rugby via a play-off route last season, Ulster are hoping to turn the page under McFarland and start afresh following a difficult period for the province.

They begin the campaign with back-to-back home games against Scarlets and Edinburgh before travelling to South Africa to face the Southern Kings and Cheetahs in the month of September.

McFarland will name his first Ulster team at 12pm on Friday.

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Ryan Bailey

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