Saturday 19 August 2017

Scrum-half aims to turn up the heat for province and Ireland

Intriguing battle to be first-choice No 9 creates big selection headache ahead for management

John Cooney: ‘It is something I’ve been looking forward to this year, to try and get into the Irish squad’
John Cooney: ‘It is something I’ve been looking forward to this year, to try and get into the Irish squad’

Daragh Small

John Cooney agreed to leave Leinster in June of last year in search of a different route to the Ireland set-up. And so far things have gone according to plan at Connacht.

Coming to Galway, the Terenure native knew he was pitting himself against another young aspiring international scrum-half. He saw Kieran Marmion as the perfect competitor to bring his game to the next level. And with Ian Porter, and the latest academy prodigy Coalin Blade also on the scene, Cooney has hardly had time to catch breath.

But he stood up the challenge and raised the level of his game adequately; he signed a permanent deal at the Sportsground in January, and was subsequently called up for a second Emerging Ireland tour.

But that's not enough for the 25-year-old former Gonzaga student, and this is the season where Cooney hopes to make his international bow.

"I wouldn't have got picked to go to Tbilisi if I was still in Leinster because I wasn't really performing in the games. I just wasn't getting a chance to play, so I wouldn't have made it.

"It was nice to get back in the frame then again. I was happy with the end of the season here. I would have liked to have pushed on, to get closer to the Irish squad for the summer, but I took Tbilisi as a good thing as well.

"It is something I have been looking forward to this year, to try and get into the Irish squad. It didn't work out at the end of last season, but with so many games on at the moment, I am going to try and put pressure on.

"I want to put my hand up for selection now. I am 25 so I want to be looking to get a spot. Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss are 34 and 35, so there is a bit of an opening there."

Since he made the switch west, Cooney has dotted down five times in 17 appearances for Connacht.

He wasn't registered for last season's Challenge Cup, so missed Connacht's European adventure. But he did start, and scored a try in their 40-32 Champions Cup play-off defeat to Gloucester, at Kingsholm.

It rounded off a busy season for the former Lansdowne clubman, who left it with a sense of personal achievement, but unfortunately it was another hard-luck story for the province.

Out-half Jack Carty was another youngster who took a lot from last term, he was one of the younger brigade that blossomed in Europe towards the end, and Cooney thinks he has all the skills to make it.

Spurred

"I think last year did a lot for him, in the fact that he got so much game-time and so many minutes. It really spurred him on this season. I know he takes it to heart when he doesn't play as well. So that actually worked out well now, because he learned a lot from last year.

"This season he has performed really well so far. He is a really talented footballer. He has got a lot going for him, he just needs to get that confidence, and he has that at the moment.

"He can be very good. As a natural footballer, his passing and kicking. He shows week in, week out that he can perform at that kind of level. He is improving with his game knowledge every week, and has a wise head on young shoulders now."

Coach Pat Lam has placed his faith in the academy graduate, to pull the strings at out-half, and Cooney hopes he can be the man to lead Connacht forward.

But his career has taught him that nothing is easy in this game. At one stage he was in limbo at the RDS behind Reddan and Boss, while Luke McGrath began to stake his claim. Cooney knows he needs to make things happen for himself at Connacht.

"We have 16 games in a row, and I like to get a lot of the work done towards start of the week so I can take part as much as possible. I need to get that extra training done on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"I just try and relax coming into the game, mentally and physically. You need to get lucky on the injury front, and that is a major factor from game to game. But if you come out of the game pretty clean, you need to realise when it's time to take it easy and when you need to train hard.

"I'm the type of player that if I am not happy with my game I will be beating myself up a bit on the Monday and Tuesday. But that's the joy of 16 games in a row, you get to redeem yourself.

"All I could do last year, was put pressure on Kieran because he was doing so well, and it took me a while because Ian was playing so well, and Caolin was coming along too.

"I played all of the 'A' games, any game I could possibly play because I thought I needed to - I missed a lot the year before. That made a big difference, and there was great competition between myself and Kieran at the end of the season."

That friendly rivalry has continued through to 2015-'16, and although Marmion was on the cusp of the Irish World Cup squad, that could be Cooney when the Six Nations comes around.

But he is keeping his sights focused on making himself a better player, and is confident the rest will take care of itself.

"It is nice to compete with Kieran, because he is young as well. He has been and around the Irish squad.

"Before I came I knew if I was competing with him, you never know what might happen if you get in ahead of him. Or if we are both performing well, we could both put our hands up for selection."

Irish Independent

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