Tuesday 15 October 2019

Cooney and McGrath lock horns in crucial battle for World Cup spot

Luke McGrath. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Luke McGrath. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For three years they battled for the same spot at Leinster, and now four years later, John Cooney and Luke McGrath will scrap it out again - this time for the third scrum-half slot in Ireland's World Cup squad.

That is assuming Joe Schmidt doesn't repeat his 2015 tactic when he picked just two nines in his 31-man group, which he may well do if he sees Joey Carbery covering both positions as Ian Madigan did back then.

On one hand, McGrath's latest knee injury came at an awful time because he missed the entire Six Nations campaign, but on the other, had he been forced into a spell on the sidelines, he would have accepted the earlier part of the season rather than the latter.

Kieran Marmion's own timely return ensured that he made it back for the Wales game and given how much credit the Connacht man has in the bank of Schmidt, it would be a major surprise if he doesn't travel to Japan along with Conor Murray.

So that leaves Cooney and McGrath, two excellent scrum-halves, with their eyes firmly set on that potential final seat on the plane as they lock horns this evening in what is an ideal chance to get one over on one another.

Murray's stranglehold over the Ireland jersey has meant that Cooney and McGrath have only won 18 caps and managed just three starts between them.

John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile
John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile

Almost three years between the pair, Cooney (28) made his Leinster debut in 2011, eight months before McGrath (26) arrived on the scene to add to what was already a competitive position with the likes of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss.

"He would have been a few years younger but we would have got on really well and we still do," Cooney says of his relationship with McGrath.

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"I still chat to him every now and again. When we are in camp, we always do a lot of passing and kicking together.

"He's a great lad and I get on really well with him but once you get on the field, we are all competitive individuals.

"It will be great to play him. I haven't actually got to play him in a long time. Last time I played in the final (with Connacht) against Leinster, I just gave him a shoulder!

"Lukey is very combative. He is a brilliant defender and he is also very good at getting the ball away very quick. That's stuff I like to think I do as well so we would be quite similar players."

Cooney eventually decided that his future lay elsewhere in his quest to become a regular face in the Ireland squad and after a three-season detour to Connacht, he now finds himself in Ulster where he has wasted little time in becoming a key cog in the club's wheel as well as being a firm fans' favourite.

Cooney was one of the few Ireland players to have had his reputation enhanced in what was a disappointing Six Nations campaign.

"It was big," he admits.

"I found my notebook from last season and some of my goals were to play in the Six Nations and I didn't get any of them. I didn't even make the Six Nations squad.

"Obviously I was annoyed not to play the last one (against Wales) but to play four out of five, I would have bit the arm off that the year before."

Undoubtedly full of confidence, the Dubliner, who spent four years with his home province, now has the potential to kick on to the next level.

The 28-year-old is in the form of his life and if Schmidt was picking his squad today, Cooney would surely be in it.

With an accomplished all-round kicking game, his ability to slot in at out-half will appeal to the Ireland coaches and with a back three of Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney, expect Cooney to look to kick in behind the Leinster defence at every given opportunity.

And then there his goal-kicking, which is a major strength. The first chance Cooney gets to line up a shot a goal, he will tick off another goal that is written down in his notebook.

"I have never kicked a goal here and that was one of my goals in Six Nations and I didn't get one," he adds.

"Darren Cave is still slagging me that I didn't take the drop goal when I scored the try here (against England).

"I gave the ball to Johnny (Sexton) but I have practised here and I have played here before with Lansdowne but back then I used not goal-kick so I have never gotten to kick one here."

That too will play nicely into the bigger picture because when it comes down to it, a reliable, versatile goal-kicking scrum-half is a very attractive option to have Ireland's World Cup armoury.

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