Injury may delay him but prop is ready to take chance
Captain of the B&I Cup team, Cooney is eager to get his next shot in Keane's front row
Having captained the Connacht Eagles against Ealing Trailfinders in the B&I Cup last weekend, Connacht's versatile tighthead prop JP Cooney is putting in the hard yards in his bid to get more game-time with the senior team.
The 27-year-old Tipperary native has played 50 times for the province, but with the in-form trio of Finlay Bealham, Conor Carey and Dominic Robertson-McCoy to contend with he has had to battle hard for a chance to shine.
And now with a fresh ankle injury picked up in the B&I Cup to deal with, it is not the news that Cooney wanted as he fights for minutes in the first 15 this term.
However the B&I Cup has offered a brilliant outlet for Cooney to pit his wits against some of the very best, while in the Ulster Bank League he has been afforded a couple of opportunities with Garryowen in the top division too. He's ready to wait for another shot.
"There is a lot competition in the squad which is good. When you have lads that are there and aren't making the squad you know they will be pushing guys and the team that goes on the pitch will be of a high quality," said Cooney.
"It's the only way a team can look to succeed. The lads needs to be really pushing because if you are in a comfort zone week in week out what drive would you have to make yourself better?
"I can't pick the team, it's not up to me but I will make sure I can tick all the boxes and I want to put my hand up for it, when the position becomes available."
Cooney's time might have come during the Autumn internationals when Bealham is likely to take up his spot in the Ireland set-up but he too will likely miss the next few weeks due to the ankle injury.
But he is delighted to be given his chance with the B&I Cup team, and captaining that side was recognition of another step forward for his career.
"There is some quality competition with the players that are playing in it now. It gives lads game-time and younger players a chance to impress. There's a very positive attitude to it up here and it's great to be getting a chance to play in it," said Cooney.
Cooney started four games for Connacht last season, and clocked up 22 appearances throughout the course of the campaign.
He was given eight chances off the bench when Connacht claimed the PRO14 title in 2015-16 and ever since his debut for the province, five seasons ago, Cooney has gradually added more to his game every year.
"My preferred position is tighthead. I have played loosehead when the necessity arose. But I want to play tighthead," said Cooney.
"The main thing right now is just trying to keep the squad going in one direction and keep the eyes on the prize. Once you put in the work the results and the way you play should speak for itself.
"I can't wait to get back out with the first team again and I feel like I'm improving all the time playing with better players too."
Cooney is still relatively young for a prop, and he believes the Ulster Bank League is an invaluable place for any rugby player to hone their skills.
His club, Garryowen, have had a solid start to their campaign, and with two wins from four games they are third in Division 1A.
Bill Johnston and David Johnston are two of the class Munster youngsters in their squad, while hooker Mike Sherry adds a massive amount of experience up front.
When he plays with Connacht Cooney can bounce his ideas off the likes off hookers Tom McCartney and Ireland international Dave Heffernan. In Limerick Sherry offers him another knowledgeable ear, and Cooney knows he needs to make the most of it.
"Anyone that has played at a top level and that can give you a bit of advice it can help for your career and Mike Sherry is great for that," said Cooney.
"I have been down to Garryowen twice this year. We are going well, we have a very good squad there at the minute. They try not to concentrate on not having too many provincial players there because they are at the behest of a coach. They may not be players that they have there all the time.
"But the two Johnstons are playing down there are the moment, and there are a few of the lads coming back from injury too.
"It's a bit of crack playing with the Munster lads. I would have known a lot of them lads before I came to Connacht. The last couple of times I played for Garryowen I was propping down beside Mike.
"They are lads I would have known for a long time so it's no big deal. But we do have a bit of friendly banter."
Connacht have been disappointed with their start to the PRO14, where they only have one victory under new head coach Kieran Keane. That success came against Southern Kings in Round 2 and Connacht are off the pace, second from bottom in Conference A.
There is lots of ground to make up domestically, but in Europe things are looking good, and Cooney knows there is plenty of potential for a good season ahead.
"I am a firm believer in the way we are trying to play rugby at the minute and I really feel it only requires a spark to kick off our season," said Cooney.
"We didn't get many wins in the first few rounds in the PRO14. But we are not a million miles away either.
"It's just about one or two small inaccuracies that are catching out all the time. As the weeks go on they are getting smaller and smaller and we can spark into life now."