Sunday 20 October 2019

Long road to the international stage pays off for resilient Cooney

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

CIan Tracey

When John Cooney first broke through with Leinster back in 2011, little did he know that he would end up becoming the model for the IRFU's plan to ensure that all four provinces have Irish-qualified players playing in key positions.

He has been used by the union's player management system and he has used the system to his full advantage. An initial loan deal to Connacht became permanent, which signalled the start of Cooney's travels before the union saw the need for Ulster to have a high-class Irish scrum-half at Ravenhill.

As soon as they did so, they wasted little time in engineering a move north for the Dubliner in place of crowd favourite Ruan Pienaar.


Replacing an Ulster legend was no easy task, but it says so much about Cooney's impact that the blow of losing Pienaar wasn't felt anything like many supporters had envisaged.

They say first impressions last and, in Cooney's case, turning up four hours late to his first meeting with the Ulster management might have scuppered any potential move before it ever really got off the ground.

It turned out quite the opposite though, as he recalls: "I got a flat tyre on my drive up to see them and I was like four hours late! I couldn't believe it so I looked up and saw the petrol station, so I was able to get there and then went to change the tyre.

"I didn't know how to change the tyre but when I went to change it, the nut broke so I couldn't even change the tyre so my best friend picked me up and drove me to Belfast so I could meet Les (Kiss).

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"I was four hours late but I think he was pretty happy that I still got there because he was like, 'Why didn't you come?' but I was like, 'I wanted to make sure I came to meet you'.

"Then the next day they offered me a contract, so I was thinking this worked out well.

"I think if they believed that I had a best friend who drove me up to Belfast after missing work for me . . . you're a decent man."

Cooney has gone from strength to strength since his first season with Ulster, which has led to deserved recognition on the international stage.

There may be some frustration that he has been limited to two brief cameos off the bench in the Six Nations thus far, but the 28-year-old knows all about the importance of staying patient.

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The ultimate goal will always be to usurp Conor Murray as Ireland's first-choice scrum-half, yet Cooney knows that he faces a tough enough battle with Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath to force his way into the wider World Cup squad.

That said, his goal-kicking as well as his ability to slot in at out-half makes him an extremely viable option for Joe Schmidt.

"You'd be lying to say you don't think about it and it is something that I can cover 10," Cooney admits.

"I don't really play 10 but I can cover it if needs be and the kicking and stuff like that. I didn't start kicking until three years ago so it's something I did adapt and added to my bow or whatever you say.

"I always thought I could kick and my brother always used to tell me to kick so I probably should have done it sooner.

"With that whole mentality shift, I started getting better at controlling my emotions and I started kicking and it worked out well. It's nice to have that extra bit I can add.

"You never know what's going to happen. There are several good scrum-halves; Jamison Gibson-Park will be eligible I think as well then, but competition drives performance.

"I don't know if consciously or subconsciously but I did realise I needed to have a point of difference and that became goal-kicking.

"Then I got into games and you might get some headlines from that. That helped build my confidence in myself and it made a big difference to my game. It's something I like doing and something I find gets me into games."

The confidence with which Cooney is currently playing with stems from being given a key leadership role in Ulster.

He has now become a regular face in the Ireland squad and having taken the long road to get there, he has no intention of giving it up without a fight.

"I think there was pressure but I don't think it really fazed me," Cooney adds. "Even when I signed I'm sure people were disappointed to lose Ruan and they mightn't have known much about me, but I got to work quickly up there.


"And I knew hard work and putting it all on the field would make them warm to me so that's what I tried to do over my first few games.

"I'm quite into psychology and I was reading about the laws of attraction and what you put out into the world comes back.

"I was getting pretty into that at the time so I knew if I put myself under pressure and put it out there that this is what I wanted to fulfil, this is what I wanted to do, I knew it would come back to me.

"I thought, 'This pressure is fine, I need to step up and do what I need to do.' I just found all season, things kept coming back my way - it might seem like a fad but it worked for me."

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