ULSTER HAVE CONFIRMED the signings of Springboks-capped back row Arno Botha and Connacht scrum-half John Cooney.
25-year-old Botha will join the northern province from the Blue Bulls, arriving after the conclusion of Super Rugby in August on a two-year contract.
Cooney, meanwhile, joins from Connacht in June on a two-year deal.
26-year-old Cooney is a former Ireland Schools, U20 and Emerging player, and he won a Heineken Cup with home province Leinster in 2012.
He has had to play second fiddle to Ireland international Kieran Marmion in recent seasons at Connacht, but will look to claim the nine shirt at Ulster as the northern province gets set to lose current incumbent Ruan Pienaar.
“Having searched domestically and abroad for the best available Irish-qualified scrum-half, John was undoubtedly our number one target and we’re delighted that he’ll come on board from this summer,” said Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss.
“John has had a couple of unfortunate niggles which have restricted his game time, but what really impressed me is his attitude and competitive approach in coming here to Ulster and wanting to earn a starting jersey on a weekly basis. He is a driven person who wants to develop his game and he certainly has the attributes to do so.
“I know from speaking with the Irish management team that they also rate him very highly and he has the potential to play international rugby.”
Cooney confirmed that he hopes the move will also boost his prospects of winning senior caps for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
“I’m delighted to be joining Ulster,” said Cooney. “My mum lived in Belfast for a few years and she really enjoyed the city so that made my decision a lot easier.
“Les Kiss was a big factor is my move too as he’s so well-respected and I believe I can develop my game under his coaching. I spoke with him at length a few times about his hopes for Ulster Rugby and it sounds like an exciting time to be involved in the set-up.
“I loved my time in Galway and it re-energised my career, but I felt it was the right time for a fresh challenge. I have aspirations to play international rugby but first and foremost my focus will be on earning the starting scrum-half position at Ulster.”
Meanwhile, powerful back row Botha will add to Ulster’s ball-carrying ability when he makes the move to Ireland.
A former South Africa U20 captain, Botha played for the Springboks twice in 2013 but suffered a serious knee injury in his second cap against Scotland and hasn’t played Test rugby since.
Botha has experience of playing across the back row, but has predominantly featured at number eight in recent seasons.
“Arno was tipped to be a future Springboks captain from a young age but his career was somewhat curtailed by injuries after he made his international debut in 2013,” said Kiss. ”Those injuries are behind him now and he has regained his best form over the past 12 months.
“His leadership and abrasiveness will be key attributes for us over the next couple of seasons. He is very aggressive in attack and his ability to get over the gainline will be especially good for us. Arno is also strong in defence, he’s a nuisance at the breakdown and he’s a good lineout option, so he has a very well-rounded game.
“He is an ambitious young man and he is determined to make an impact with us. He is a serious competitor who is willing to work hard to earn his jersey. I believe he will settle well in our environment and become a huge fan favourite here at Kingspan Stadium.
“Bryn Cunningham and myself have been working hard to add quality and depth to our squad for next season, particularly up front, and Arno is a great addition in that respect.
“Marcell [Coetzee] is yet to play for us so he will almost be like a new signing too. In the coming weeks, we will announce a further addition to strengthen the forward pack, as well as the retention of some of our high-profile current players.”
In their own statement on the transfer, the Blue Bulls indicated that they weren’t able to provide a financial package good enough to keep Botha.
“Arno received a very good offer from Ulster,” said high performance manager Xander Janse van Rensburg. ”We have been in constant discussions with Arno about his future since 2016.
“We want to thank him for his contribution, we are thankful and proud of what he has done. The situation is that we can’t financially make an offer close to what he’s currently earning.”
This article was updated at 13.56 to correct ‘was’ to ‘has’ in the fifth paragraph.