Monday 27 January 2020

Fearless Cooney saves the day yet again for Ulster

Ulster 25 Harlequins 24

Ulster's John Cooney scores a penalty. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ulster's John Cooney scores a penalty. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Jonathan Bradley

John Cooney continues to give the impression of a man writing his own scripts. Spend five minutes in or around Kingspan Stadium this season and there's a better than evens chance you'll hear someone talking about 'fighting for every inch' or 'squeezing every drop'.

'Why do things the easy way?' would perhaps be a more fitting mantra the way the past month has gone. Three games into this Champions Cup season have yielded three wins - their combined margin of victory from them stands at seven. On each occasion, the crucial final points have been provided by Dan McFarland's talismanic scrum-half.

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A 71st-minute penalty against Bath, a something-from-nothing try against Clermont and, when all seemed lost yesterday, a 79th-minute penalty to see off Harlequins and seal a one-point win.

From ten metres inside the Londoners' half, the former Leinster and Connacht man stepped up as Kingspan held its breath.

The hands-on-heads poses of the coaches and players on the sideline hinted it was on the edge of his range, but as the strike sailed straight through the posts it had enough legs to make it all the way into the stands of the Memorial End.

Not since the early days of his predecessor, Ruan Pienaar, has a player appeared to steal so many games, so late, and in such quick succession for the side, on this occasion rescuing what only 20 minutes prior had seemed a dire situation that threatened to undo so much of the good work completed in this pool.

Ulster's Sean Reidy scores a try as Harlequins' Michele Campagnaro looks on. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ulster's Sean Reidy scores a try as Harlequins' Michele Campagnaro looks on. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Ulster came in to the afternoon as 11-point favourites, without a home loss in some 14 months. However, by the hour mark visiting fly-half Marcus Smith was lining up the conversion of Elia Elia's second try in three minutes, the successful kick moving the Premiership side into a 24-15 lead.

It had been the Ulster nine's pass from the base of a ruck that had been brilliantly read by Quins' impressive number eight Alex Dombrandt that led to the third score of the day for the opposition, a feisty yet ambling game suddenly looking as if it was to become perilous for Ulster. The possibility of having to go to Clermont and win in January just to keep hopes alive briefly became the less-than-promising scenario.

"The way I look at it, if I'm in that situation and I need someone to kick the winning points, there's no better man," said head coach McFarland.

"I think I could physically feel my heart pounding in my chest at the end.

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Harlequins' Semi Kunatani. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ulster's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Harlequins' Semi Kunatani. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

"We had a few situations like that last year where we had to fight at the end but it was only this morning I was walking down the street and I thought to myself that we hadn't had a game like that this year, (one) that had really come down to the wire and we had to pull something out of the bag. I almost thought to myself 'I wonder do we still have it in us?' That's demonstrated that we still do." Ulster will need to be better on Friday at The Stoop, especially as Harlequins coach Paul Gustard insisted that his attention will remain on this competition despite two losses.

But for now, cometh the hour, cometh the same man. Again and again.

Scorers - Ulster: Tries: Reidy, McCloskey, McBurney, Cons: Cooney 2, Pens: Cooney 2. Harlequins: Tries: Dombrandt, Elia 2, Cons: Smith 3 Pens: Smith

Ulster: J Stockdale; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson (c); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.

Harlequins' Tevita Cavubati in a line out. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Harlequins' Tevita Cavubati in a line out. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Replacements: A McBurney (for Herring, 60), A Warwick, T O'Toole (for Moore, 73), K Treadwell (for O'Connor, 58), M Rea (for Coetzee, 60), D Shanahan, B Johnston, M Faddes (for Gilroy)

Harlequins: R Chisholm; T Ismaiel, M Campagnaro, J Lang, G Ibitoye; M Smith, D Care; J Marler, E Elia, K Sinckler; S Lewies, T Cavubati; S Kunatani, C Robshaw (c), A Dombrandt. Replacements: J Musk, N Auterac, S Kerrod (for Sinckler, 67), D Lamb, T Lawday (for Kunatani, 58), M Landajo (for Care, 67), F Saili (for Campagnaro, 45) , V Goneva (for Ibitoye, 60)

Referee: Mike Adamson

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