Tuesday 6 December 2016

Piping prop gunning for starts after breaking his duck

Musical Tipperary outdoorsman eager to kick on again following long wait for full debut

Daragh Small

Published 11/11/2016 | 02:30

Prop JP Cooney has got his first start with Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile
Prop JP Cooney has got his first start with Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile

JP Cooney took a different sporting route to the vast majority of his former Thurles CBS classmates, but he still ended up out on the field for the big Munster hurling fixtures at Semple Stadium.

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When he chose the oval ball instead of the sliotar, the 26-year-old loosehead prop was on his own. He headed down the road less travelled but his passion for the bag-pipes helped him come full circle.

The Thurles native has played 36 times for Connacht, but it doesn't stop him from continuing on the family tradition, and taking his place in the Sean Treacy Pipe Band.

It's a massive release for the man who is more used to propping down opposite guys weighing up to 20 stone, and Cooney loves being able to keep his hobbies alive too.

"A lot of the Tipperary lads that I went to school with, the one time they would see me is during the summer time when there would be a Munster championship game on in Thurles, in Semple Stadium," he says.

"I play in the band that parades them around the pitch, the Sean Treacy Pipe Band. They are stationed in my home parish.

"My father plays bag-pipes, my brother and sister, they all do. My father learned it off his father, who learned it off his father before him. I am actually the fourth generation that has played in the band."

Cooney was in school with a number of the Tipperary side that beat Kilkenny to claim their 27th Liam MacCarthy Cup in September.

And although he wasn't in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, he did take particular pleasure out of the fact that he won the battle of the household.

He lives in Galway with his girlfriend Sarah, and getting the bragging rights over his Kilkenny-born other half was an added bonus after the Premier County triumph.

The Garryowen clubman is enjoying his fifth season as part of the Connacht senior set-up and despite a couple of disappointing results in the Pro12 recently, he knows the potential is there for the Pro12 champions to bounce back.

The team will look to regroup over the two-week break now, and Cooney has another way to relax and unwind before he gets back into the thick of the action, on the rugby field in Galway.

"I like to go shooting - the pheasant season just started in November, so I go and see whether I can bag a few pheasants or if there are a few ducks lurking around," he says. "We only live up the road from a bog.

"I worked in Bord na Mona when I was younger during the summers. I have a fair idea of where to go when I am looking for ducks and pheasants because I know the bog inside out at this stage.

"And I would go off with my brother and father, and maybe a few friends from home, for the day."

Boredom

So boredom certainly won't be a problem for the man whose career continues to go from strength to strength in the Connacht jersey.

After 33 caps as a replacement he finally got his first start for the province in the famous Champions Cup success against Zebre on October 23 at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, and he hopes that can propel forward even more.

"It was a long time coming. I had to wait a good while for it. But it was good when it did come and then as well to get the win that we did, I was delighted," he says.

"I have had a lot of caps but not so many starts so it was good to get out there and get a win."

But with first choice loosehead prop Denis Buckley on the mend, Ronan Loughney not too far off and Ireland's Finlay Bealham set to return after the autumn internationals, Cooney knows he cannot rest on his laurels.

"There's always competition for places here in the squad. That's what drives us to play to a high standard," he says.

"When I get the opportunity it's up to me to make the most of it, if I am picked to play I have to perform to the best of my ability on the pitch."

After claiming the Pro12 title with his colleagues in May, Cooney took some time off to recuperate, but he had one aim and that was to nail down a spot in the Connacht squad.

Every player has their goals going into pre-season and for the Tipperary man, it was all about leaning up, and getting his body in the best possible condition going forward.

"I probably focused on my body composition more than anything else. I tried to get as lean as possible and maintain muscle mass more during pre-season," he reveals.

"We had the celebrations after the Pro12 final, but I didn't have a mad summer.

"I was at home for most of it really.

"I was only away in Portugal for a week and when I came back I was chilled out at home. I wanted to get a good start to the pre-season and I did that."

Cooney's perseverance has paid off, eventually, and after Buckley went down injured, Cooney upped his game even more and pushed for inclusion on a regular basis.

The real test awaits, with games to come against Cardiff Blues and Treviso in the Sportsground, prior to the massive Champions back-to-back fixtures against English giants Wasps.

"I just want to be in a position week, in week out where I am putting my hand up for a jersey on the squad, whether it's starting or on the bench I would be happy," he says.

"There's real good competition when everyone is fit. I want to be competing and be a pain in the head for someone who is picking the team."

Irish Independent

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