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Cairns: The Competition For Places Is Always High

Cairns: The Competition For Places Is Always High

John Cooney’s arrival in Belfast next week, following on from the departure of Ruan Pienaar, will ensure the battle for the Ulster number 9 jersey intensifies as pre-season preparations continue under Les Kiss and the province’s new coaching team.

Paul Marshall, recent Ireland debutant John Cooney, who begins his two-year deal at Kingspan Stadium in the coming days, and Dave Shanahan are the most experienced scrum halves at Ulster’s disposal for the coming season, but Aaron Cairns and Under-20 scrum half Jonny Stewart are already pushing hard for senior appearances.

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Although Cairns made a try-scoring debut against Edinburgh last November as a replacement winger, he has shown his versatility with a return to the scrum half position where Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss hopes he can flourish.

Speaking in May before the end of the 2016/17 campaign, Kiss said: “Aaron has done a lot of good things with the Ireland Sevens and we’ve been trying to get him more exposure at nine but unfortunately he’s been injured. He’ll train more at nine moving forward.”

The 24-year-old Cairns first came to prominence as a potent winger with Ballynahinch in the Ulster Bank League. As well as getting game-time with Ulster ‘A’ in the British & Irish Cup, he has impressed in the green jersey during the Ireland Sevens team’s rise up the Rugby Europe ranks.

Now in the midst of a testing pre-season regime with Ulster, Cairns said: “Pre-season is going really well. We’re into week three now, and the boys seem to be digging in deep and enjoying it. Some of us were in at the start of June, a bit of rehab and stuff.

“Yeah, the boys have had a good wee break off since the Barbarians game (at the start of June) and everyone seems to have come back mostly injury-free and hopefully we can get a good go at the start of the season.”

Ulster’s new assistant coach Dwayne Peel, a two-time Grand Slam-winning scrum half with Wales and a 2005 Lion, is the ideal tutor for Cairns who will be hoping to make the most of any pre-season or early season opportunities at half-back. Leapfrogging his more experienced colleagues will be a challenge, but it is one he is clearly relishing.

“Competition for places is always high. If you’ve got competition for places, it brings out the best in everyone, so hopefully we can see that across the board in all positions,” insisted the province’s 2016 Ulster Bank League Player of the Year.

“Obviously you’ve got John Cooney coming in, Marshy (Paul Marshall) and Shanners (Dave Shanahan) and myself, and even Jonny Stewart who is in the Academy there. So there’s a lot of quality there, and it’s good for me, personally, because it’s pushing me. I want to get a starting position and I want to get some game-time with the seniors.

“The likes of Marshy, and Cooney coming in, and even Shanners, I can learn from them because they’ve had more game-time at it (scrum half). So I’m looking forward to the season ahead and hopefully getting some caps.”