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19-year-old Kernohan excelling in Ulster after pivotal pre-season

The wing is enjoying a breakthrough season, but came close to leaving the Ulster setup last year.

IF THERE’S ONE thing that Ulster have been good at over the past few years, it’s been uncovering gems in the back three.

Between Craig Gilroy, Rob Lyttle, Robert Baloucoune and, of course, Jacob Stockdale, they have a strong and still young supply of wingers roaming free in the backfield and successfully navigating senior rugby.

Of those four, Gilroy and Stockdale have represented Ireland, Baloucoune has firmly established himself now in the squad and, but for a horrendous run of injuries, Lyttle would have progressed further too.

But the first to break onto the scene for Ulster this season was someone who may not have even been in Ireland anymore let alone trying to break into the Ulster set-up. Pre-season changed that.

“I had a couple of options in terms of university, so that’s probably what I would have done. If I wasn’t in the academy then I probably would have been at university (abroad),” reveals wing Angus Kernohan.

Fortunately for Ulster, he didn’t, and now both they and Kernohan are reaping the rewards.

The Ballymena teenager resolved himself for one last push in pre-season to try and force the issue and prolong his stint with Ulster – and he got it.

Impressing interim head coach Dwayne Peel, filling in ahead of Dan McFarland’s arrival,  Kernohan earned starts in pre-season friendlies and that in turn led to a spot on the bench for the season opener against the Scarlets. A fortnight later, he was scoring his first try after coming on as a replacement against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.

Angus Kernohan scores a try Kernohan scores his try in Port Elizabeth. Source: Richard Huggard/INPHO

Between those, Kernohan was offered the upgrade to a full academy deal and he was soon togging out from the off against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein due to an injury to Craig Gilroy.

For someone who was so uncertain about where to play his rugby before the season began, he found himself tasting senior Pro14 rugby in South Africa.

“It’s been an exciting transition for me, it’s been pretty crazy since the start of the season, but I’m thankful to the coaches, the other guys around me and my family for keeping me grounded and trying to keep focused,” says the 19-year-old.

“It hasn’t really changed my outlook in that I want to come in every day and become a better rugby player.”

Now the teenager is at the forefront of the youth-driven philosophy at Ulster, a favourite of the coaching staff and a player with plenty of potential still to be unlocked, no doubt. Indeed, he’s even been held back slightly due to a hamstring tear suffered against Leinster in January.

But along with the likes of Mike Lowry, Angus Curtis, James Hume and the aforementioned Baloucoune and Lyttle, there’s plenty of young talent bursting through the ranks at Kingspan Stadium and ready to make an impact.

With the loss of several experienced names – chief among them wing duo Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe – the next wave coming through have the unenviable task of filling those enormous boots, but so far they’ve been doing an admirable job.

“It’s really exciting, I’ve played with and against them since I was first year,” he says of team-mates Lowry and Hume. “I think in their year at Ulster Schools, I played up with James and Michael.

“It’s really exciting and it’s nice. You really trust those guys and you take the field with them knowing they’re going to give their absolute all.

You’ve got to live up to the standard with being an Ulster rugby player. I’m not sure if pressure is the right word. Definitely nervous about how you want to play, but that’s a good thing because when you go out to play there it means you are on edge and ready for what’s about to happen.

“When you look at the guys who have pulled on the jersey before, we’ve grown up watching them since we were young boys so you want to go out there and give your absolute all and your absolute best.”

Still, as a young player it did take a little bit of time to bed into the squad, even if he didn’t realise the older boys would be so accommodating.

“I remember one of my first times going into the stadium when I was in the sub-academy, you just kept your head down and were too nervous to look them in the eye,” laughs Kernohan.

“Things like walking into the changing room was really scary. But in fairness to all those guys they’re just absolute gentlemen and always make you feel at home.

“I remember the first time Marcell Coetzee spoke to me he said: ‘What’s up boykie (little boy)’. I didn’t know what it meant! But little things like that make you feel part of the team… they mean a lot, they make you really feel at home.”

Kernohan’s hamstring tear came at arguably the worst time – so far it’s caused him to sit out the final two Champions Cup games that saw Ulster return to the quarter-finals for the first time in five years, while he’s also had to miss the start of the Ireland Under 20 Six Nations campaign.

While it’s never good to get an injury, the 19-year-old does confess that it could have been timed just a little better as, ideally, he would have been involved at least with the U20s in their wins over England and Scotland.

Angus Kernohan Kernohan in a training match for Ireland U20 in December. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Definitely,” he responds when asked if it’s frustrating to miss out. “Even going down to camps and missing those.”

There are still three games left in the U20 Championship should Noel McNamara decide to call him up ahead of the trip to Italy. For now he is involved with Ulster. Kernohan will make his first start for the province since the loss in Dublin when he takes to the field tonight against Ospreys (kick-off 7.35pm).

From Ulster’s perspective, a win is imperative given their last outing saw them not only give points to fellow Conference B play-off chasers Benetton, but fail to come away with the win themselves in a rather fortunate 17-17 draw in Belfast.

The side have had three weeks to stew over that result and they’re now ready to get back on the horse again, aided by the return of Iain Henderson from injury and the Irish releases of Jordi Murphy and John Cooney.

“Dan always puts it: if we can beat each team, we can control where we end up in the table,” says Kernohan. “If we lose to a team, it’s then in their hands whether they finish on top of us or below us so each team we beat, it’s more in our control.

Cian Kelleher and Matt Healy with Angus Kernohan Kernohan on the wrong end of a superb Cian Kelleher tackle this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s a bit of a cliche but we have to take it step by step and look to the next game, and that’s Ospreys this week which is a game we can definitely win. It’ll be a tough game but that’s what we’ve got to do for the rest of the season, keep our heads down and win each game I suppose.”

He makes it sound so simple. But if Ulster’s season is to prove anything like Kernohan’s rise to the top this season, it’ll be anything but.

Ospreys:

15 Dan Evans
14 Hanno Dirksen
13 Cory Allen
12 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler
11 Luke Morgan
10 Sam Davies (Capt)
9 Tom Habberfield

1 Jordan Lay
2 Scott Baldwin
3 Tom Botha
4 Lloyd Ashley
5 Bradley Davies
6 Olly Cracknell
7 Sam Cross
8 James King

Replacements

16 Scott Otten
17 Rowan Jenkins
18 Ma’afu Fia
19 Will Griffiths
20 Rob McCusker
21 Matthew Aubrey
22 Luke Price
23 Keelan Giles 

Ulster:

15. Peter Nelson
14. Angus Kernohan
13. Darren Cave
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Mike Lowry
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor (captain)
5. Iain Henderson
6. Clive Ross
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements: 

16. John Andrew
17. Andy Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Sean Reidy
21. Dan Shanahan
22. James Hume
23. Rob Lyttle


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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