Wednesday 11 December 2019

'He's the man in form. He's a nuggetty little player' - Luke Fitzgerald hails Ulster's John Cooney

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell (right), Ireland attack coach Mike Catt (centre) and Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster (left) during their time with England. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell (right), Ireland attack coach Mike Catt (centre) and Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster (left) during their time with England. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ulster scrum-half John Cooney

Tony Considine

We may only have reached the halfway point of the pre-Christmas Champions Cup programme but even with four games to go in the pool stage, it's unlikely that we'll see a more skilful Irish try than John Cooney's for Ulster last Friday.

The score, where Cooney clipped the ball over the head of Alivereti Raka, before some soccer-style control with both feet enabled him to ground the ball ahead of the chasing Clermont defence, put Ulster 18-6 ahead.

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And while Ulster head coach, Dan McFarland admitted to it being a heart in the mouth moment, Cooney had apparently been practising that move in training for years.

Practice or not, it takes some confidence to pull a trick like that out of the bag for the first time in a Champions Cup game and, following on from another try generated by his footwork with the ball against Bath in the opener, showed a scrum-half playing at the top of his game.

The problem for Cooney in international terms is that his position is one with an inexperienced but crowded field with Leinster’s Luke McGrath and the Connacht pair of Caolin Blade and Kieran Marmion all looking to add to the pressure on an out-of-sorts current incumbent Conor Murray come January.

But the ex-Leinster scrum-half is top of the tree on current form according to his former teammate, Luke Fitzgerald.

"I think he’s playing the best (of all the nines) and he’s doing it without playing in the best team. The try was outstanding and he’s playing with a huge amount of confidence," Fitzgerald told The Left Wing, Independent.ie’s rugby podcast in association with Aldi.

"He's the man in form. He's a nuggetty little player. He's a great tackler and he gets stuck in, he doesn’t get enough credit for that.

"He's a good reader of the game and a good footballer. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out in January for him," he said.

While Cooney made his senior debut for Leinster under Joe Schmidt back in 2011, his chances both at provincial and international level were limited under the recently departed manager.

Despite decent cameos from the bench against England, Scotland, Italy and France during this year’s Six Nations, the France game was the last of his eight caps and he found himself cut from the provisional World Cup squad without getting an opportunity in the warm-up games to stake a claim.

With last week's try as far removed from playing the percentages as you could be, Fitzgerald believes Cooney may have better luck under new Ireland boss Andy Farrell if a slightly less analytical approach comes to the fore.

"If you looked at John, he was having a huge impact in Ulster, it wasn't just what he was bringing on the field, he was a big moments guy for them. He kicked a lot of winners or kicks to tie games. He’s been a massive player for them," Fitzgerald explained.

"Sometimes you just don’t fit a coaches eye or there’s one trait in a player a coach doesn’t like. And Joe (Schmidt) is probably one of those people who can get something in his head and that’s all he sees with a player.

"Joe is human with these things but he's a big statto as well. I always feel when you hear him talking that he’ll bend the stats to support a narrative.

"He's good enough with the numbers to understand how to do that in terms of hard data. I wouldn't be surprised if he did that with John."

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