Thursday 22 February 2018

Cooney content with new lease on challenging career

Cooney: "The main thing going through my head doing fitness work was to make this tour, to make the Ireland squad." Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When eight uncapped players go away on a tour like this, the fear is that one of them will come home in the same state. Their needs were all different - from the trio of early developers off last season's U-20 World Cup campaign to the relative veterans like Kieran Treadwell and John Cooney.

You could say the scrum-half's need was greatest. Certainly it's in Joe Schmidt's interest that the pool of nines gets more depth. A bit less than ten minutes off the bench in Tokyo might not come across as a big splash, but it was important for two reasons: Cooney's career has been hobbled by injury and given that he will be en route to Ulster in a few weeks he needs to look fit.

"I think it's three or four surgeries on my shoulder in the last few years," he explains. "Even last year, in the Guinness PRO12 final, I dislocated my shoulder, and that was six months out, so the main thing going through my head doing fitness work was to make this tour, to make the Ireland squad. It was nice to achieve it at the end of the season."

It was particularly nice as his ability was called into question - prompted primarily by his inability to stay fit long enough to make a decent impression. It must have been a struggle to keep faith.

"It is tough at times when you start hitting a few games, and start feeling confident, it can really set you back," says Cooney.

"I think at this stage now it's more mental than physical. So I've really worked on my mental side, to be able to adapt to different circumstances and make sure I'm doing as much mental work as I can. I'm seeing someone in Galway to help me with that side of my game. I think it's something I've developed through adversity."

The move north is not a road well travelled by players from the other provinces. It makes logistical sense for IRFU performance director David Nucifora to try to spread the load, and increase the depth. So Cooney is heading to Belfast.

"I think it was a bit of a no-brainer," the player says. "Kieran (Marmion) is a great rugby player so I just saw when Ruan (Pienaar) was leaving that it was an opportunity.

"So it (moving province) was something I felt I could do again. I'm looking forward to singing for Ulster, getting to know the boys here and playing with Paddy Jackson today - it's just a new experience."

"I know people didn't want to influence my decision because I loved Connacht. I loved everything about it, my mum's from Sligo. I had a background there, but at the end of the day it's head over heart."

His mother must have felt sure her boy was - like James Ryan a fortnight ago - about to crown his debut with a quick try. For a moment a route opened up to the Japan line, with Cooney in the right place at the right time.

"Yeah I only got about 10 minutes, but it was nice," he says.

"When I saw Rhys (Ruddock) make the half break I ran a support line - something Connacht really taught us to do - so I nearly snuck under. I could see the try line and I could see my family at home shouting."

He'll settle for having a cap, and a new lease on a challenging career.

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