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‘That’s definitely the most difficult decision I have ever made’

Ulster coach Dan McFarland made the bravest call of his coaching career today – opting to start Alby Mathewson over talisman John Cooney

DAN MCFARLAND HAS confessed that his decision to leave John Cooney out of Ulster’s starting XV for tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 final against Leinster was the hardest one of his career.

Time will tell if it was the right one yet at first glance it seems a smart as well as a brave choice, given the impact Alby Mathewson, Cooney’s replacement, made in the second half of last Saturday’s semi-final victory over Edinburgh.

Given Cooney’s status as Ulster’s talisman, there is an element of damned if you do and damned if you don’t to McFarland’s call. Yet it’s done. Sleepless nights preceded the big call.

It was definitely the most difficult selection decision I have ever been involved in, and I have been involved in a lot of them,” said the Ulster coach earlier today. “You are talking about two excellent No9s, Alby is just in the better form at the moment. We are lucky to have two men of that quality to choose from and it is brilliant to have John there to come off the bench. Hopefully we will be in a position whereby he can change the direction of the game when he is introduced.”

McFarland’s other big call was to recall Iain Henderson, his captain, who had been rehabbing from surgery and was not due to return until the middle of next month. However, a conversation with his surgeon last week resulted in the Irish international lock being given the green light to return ahead of schedule.

“It’s simply great to have Iain back. He has always shown a propensity to play really well in big games when he comes back from an injury.”

They need him, Leinster being unbeaten this season, Ulster being shy of silverware for 14 years. “We are in no doubt that we have to go into the game with all guns blazing and if we are not precise, it will be difficult for us,” said McFarland, who did not consider Leinster’s decision to leave their captain, Johnny Sexton, on the bench to be a sign of complacency on their behalf. “Ross Byrne is there, he’s an exceptional player,” said McFarland.

Henderson added: “I feel good. It was great to get the news from the surgeon last week. There is no shying away from the fact that Leinster are at the top of their game but where they are is precisely where we are trying to get to. We are excited about this opportunity.”

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Cooney has been dropped to the bench.

Cooney has been dropped to the bench.

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