Late starter finding his groove as move west bears fruit
Pacey Dubliner 'settling in easily' as improved game-time satisfies his hunger to succeed
Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30
Connacht scrum-half John Cooney was never fully confident he would make it as a rugby player, but as the years went by he has blossomed into a stealthy No 9 with speed to burn.
He turns 25 on May 1 and after 28 appearances in three and a bit seasons with Leinster, he decided to come on loan to Connacht in search of more game-time.
The Terenure native said his career hinged on a moment in his teens where the only reason he continued to play was because he was making the 'A' team in Gonzaga.
At the time he was also playing soccer for Beachwood FC in Ranelagh, but when the Leinster sub-academy came calling he decided to pursue his rugby career.
"It wasn't until fourth year that I decided to play club rugby for De La Salle Palmerston. Just because my brother was playing up there with the firsts so I joined them," he recalls.
"As I got better, there was a pretty good side at Lansdowne and I thought I had a good chance of winning the AIL - and I did, luckily, get to win the AIL there so it was a good decision in the end.
"We had a very good team that year. We had Jack O'Connell - he is now with Bristol - we had Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy, then as well we had Craig Ronaldson and Matt Healy.
"I got called into the Ireland U-18s but didn't make the initial team. The only reason I was called in was because there was an injury, so I only played one game for them.
"Even at that stage I didn't think I would really make it in the rugby and until sub-academy and academy days I was just doing it for the sake of it.
"I did two years in the sub-academy in Leinster and then luckily only did one year in the academy and then got a development contract so that was quite enjoyable."
After attending Gonzaga College, Cooney headed for UCD where he completed a three-year degree in Commerce.
It's something he maintains he will go back to in the not too distant future but he wants to keep his focus on rugby at the moment.
He arrived on the Leinster scene at a time when the competition at scrum-half was particularly tough but Cooney got to learn from some of the best in the game.
"It was a bit frustrating. There was Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan," he explains.
"Then there was a few other players there with Luke McGrath coming from a younger age group. He was only new on the scene but he's doing well now.
"I knew Boss and Reddan still had a few years left in them because they are seriously fit, eat well and look after their bodies really well.
"So it was in the back of my mind that I had to leave at some stage and then I got surgery on my shoulder in last year as well so that set me back a bit.
"But Isaac and Eoin were great mentors. People say they both have different games and ways of playing. People would say Isaac would be more physical - he's loud and barks out orders - then Reddan would get the ball away quick, but I think they are both very good passers.
"They're both very good kickers as well and they have good all-round games, so it's good to learn off both of them.
"We would always have done passing together and we'd do kicking together, so yeah I learned a lot and I would like to say right now I am a mix of both of them."
Eventually Cooney grew disillusioned of the lack of game-time.
Then at the start of this season Connacht enquired about signing him on loan - ten Pro12 appearances and one try later, he has never looked back.
"I was frustrated at the end of last season because I wasn't playing much for Leinster. In the first year, I was cover for the first half of the season, then I wasn't really playing much rugby at all," he says.
"Then my shoulder was kind of at me so I knew I had to get surgery so at the end of the season I was pretty frustrated overall.
"I had been at them about getting more minutes on the pitch so Matt O'Connor rang me saying that Connacht were on to them about a potential loan deal. I jumped at the opportunity when he said it to me.
"I it was a good option because I was coming back from injury and it was around September so I could try and get down to Connacht to try and break into the side.
"So I was happy out when I got the news of it and my mum, Liguori is from Sligo as well and I've a house in Ballina in Mayo. So I know the west well and it made the decision even easier."
Cooney made his Connacht debut as a replacement in the 39-21 defeat away to Glasgow Warriors in Round 4 of the Pro12.
He has gradually found his feet in Galway and after signing a permanent contract at the end of January he is looking forward to another year playing under Pat Lam.
"I've really enjoyed it here. In terms of settling in - Dave McSharry lived right up the road from me in Terenure, so he played underage with me as well.
"He was one of my best mates growing up so that was handy, and then I knew Jack Carty, David Heffernan, Denis Buckley and loads of the lads I've played underage with.
"So basically I knew half of the squad before I came down. So it was fairly easy settling in."