The South African scrum-half was a fan favourite at the Kingspan Stadium before being forced to leave by the IRFU’s succession policy requiring an Irish-qualified scrum-half in Belfast.
But Cooney doesn’t feel any pressure in replacing a man who scored almost 1000 points for Ulster over seven years.
“It’s a big deal him leaving but I prefer coming in where a big player has been before because I love a challenge”, the 27-year-old said.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) August 14, 2017
“It’s a big challenge but that’s what I’m here for. Playing time was the main thing. With Ruan leaving I thought I could get games here.”
Cooney revealed that thoughts immediately turned to his own career when news broke last August that Pienaar would depart at the end of 2016-17.
“I remember hearing about it on the radio, that he’d had to leave,” said Cooney.
“I just thought straight away that there’d be an opportunity there. I texted my agent saying it would be great for me.
“I was hoping Ulster would get on to me about it and a few weeks later, they did. It was all pretty straightforward.”
Cooney is desperate to make up for lost time after a lack of regular playing time at his previous club Connacht, where he was often forced to play second fiddle to Kieran Marmion.
“When I went to Connacht, Kieran was going well and I’d had three shoulder surgeries, which set me back.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 7, 2017
“Since then, I’ve had seven or eight months injury-free and want to press on.
“Me and Kieran; the games were sometimes split between us but I want to start the big games.
“I don’t want to be starting one week and out the next.”