Sunday 4 December 2016

Ex-Munster man ready to wait for his chance to impress

Tipperary native relishing loose-head battle for extended game time at adopted province

Daragh Small

Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30

Connacht’s JP Cooney is tackled by Exeter’s Phil Dollman during the European Challenge Cup earlier this season
Connacht’s JP Cooney is tackled by Exeter’s Phil Dollman during the European Challenge Cup earlier this season

It was a harsh existence for an aspiring professional rugby player at Thurles CBS, a school where one sport rules them all.

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In the heart of hurling strongholds, the fastest game on grass was almost part of the curriculum for any young sportsman in the Tipperary nursery, but JP Cooney dared to buck the trend.

The 25-year-old Connacht prop was the only one in the school yard throwing a rugby ball around while beside him the likes of Pádraic Maher and Michael Cahill honed their skills as future hurling stars for the Premier County.

They were setting their sights on All-Ireland honours whereas the goals were a little bit different for loose-head Cooney who is now three seasons into his stay in Galway.

He is yet to start a game for Connacht but can be forgiven for that with rising star Denis Buckley propping down in his position.

The former Garryowen clubman has 19 appearances for Pat Lam's men since joining for the 2012-'13 season.

"When I came into the professional game not having the schools' background, I would have to maybe work on my strength and on my weights a lot more so than some young lad who was in a school system," said Cooney.

"They train more and they're doing weights at a younger age whereas I didn't have that so it was probably a path less travelled when you consider most of the playing population in Ireland at the moment."

Cooney kept the head in the books but outside of the classroom remained positive about his chances of one day fulfilling his dreams of making a career out of the game he loved. The Thurles native went on to represent Munster at U-18, U-19 and U-20 level; however it never quite clicked with his home province and his main focus was his career with Garryowen.

Coaches Paul Cunningham and John Staunton were massive influences at U-20 level as he became a versatile option on either side of the scrum while maintaining his studies at UL.

He graduated with a teaching degree which doubles up in science so the possibilities are endless when he retires.

"It's always great to have a back-up plan because you never know what's coming around the corner.

"I could be playing rugby for the next ten years or I could be playing for the next two months. You just never know the way things might work out in the future," he said.

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But for him the journey is only getting started - he is part of the young brigade gradually turning Connacht into a one of the most feared teams in the Pro12.

"Pat (Lam) always speaks about the squad that he has, sharing in the success I suppose and in the disappointment as well. But what we really had this year is a really good squad effort.

"Not necessarily just in the starting team, you would notice at training especially in the last couple of weeks there's big competition in training for places on the bench, for places on the team and it brings a real edge to training because everyone wants to be a part of it."

Cooney currently stays with fellow youngsters Robbie Henshaw (21) and Shane Layden (22) and their age-profile is the trend flowing throughout the squad.

Now on the brink of Champions Cup qualification for next term Connacht may finally get over the hump and be able to retain the consistency they always craved.

"There's so much talent there in our squad. Even some of the younger lads, they wouldn't get as much game time at the moment, like the guys in the academy that are coming through. They are really talented young players and it's great to be a part of it and it's great to be there and to see what goes on."

Buckley is another name that has hit the headlines this season and despite having to rely on opportunities in his shadow, Cooney respects the quality of his direct opponent to the No 1 jersey.

Happy with his own game at the moment, the former Vistakon employee knows chances came his way this season only for a broken hand sustained in a training ground accident to stall his progress.

"I was probably a bit unlucky with that because I broke it at the time when there was a few other props injured as well. I probably ruled myself out of a bit of game time when I did break my hand so I was bit unlucky in that respect. But other than that I've been relatively injury-free this season.

"I would like to be getting a bit more game time and that but these are the challenges that you're given. You need to be patient and keep working on your game all the time.

"The coaches are very helpful, they are always talking to you, telling what you do well and what you need to be working on the whole time so it's just kind of ticking off boxes as you go through it and make sure you stay working on your game," he said.

"Denis Buckley is a good friend of mine and I lived with him as well when I came up here last year. He's such a good player and you can get great tips from him on what he does. There's always going to be competition there for places but he's has such strong performances week in, week out it's kind of hard for any of the rest of us to stick up our hands.

"But it's good to have that kind of quality in a squad and be playing with a team that has that kind of quality there because it does mean that any chance that you do get, you're having to work for it."

Irish Independent

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