Wednesday 26 September 2018

Cooney showing there is life after Pienaar

Dublin scrum-half has hit the ground running at Ulster

John Cooney has benefitted from his move north. Photo: Sportsfile
John Cooney has benefitted from his move north. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It takes a certain type of character to hear the news that Ruan Pienaar is being forced to leave Ulster and call his agent right away, sensing an opportunity.

Many would be daunted by the prospect of filling a legend's boots, but John Cooney only saw opportunity.

Five years after he won a Heineken Cup medal playing opposite the South African at Twickenham, now he wears the shirt so synonymous with the Pienaar name and, what's more, it's fitting nicely.

For all of the teeth-gnashing about the Springbok's departure, the new arrival has slotted in seamlessly.

At 27, he has been forced to wait for his opportunity.

During his time with his home province Leinster, he found himself behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss who continued to perform to a high standard well into their 30s.

He knew they'd have to retire at some stage, but with Luke McGrath coming up on his heels, and left as 24th man so often, he opted to get out of his comfort zone.


He moved to Connacht, initially on loan before making it permanent, but found Kieran Marmion hard to shift and while he picked up a Guinness PRO12 medal in 2016 the majority of his appearances came off the bench.

In all, 29 of his 70 senior provincial appearances have been starts and although he had retained contact with Joe Schmidt throughout, he knew he would need a starting spot to earn international honours.

One of IRFU performance director David Nucifora's goals is to move players to where the game-time is, so Cooney is a shining example.

Even before he'd donned the white jersey, his initiative was rewarded with a cap in Japan last summer.

The way he is playing, it could be the first of many.

Conor Murray remains the pre-eminent figure in the Ireland pecking order by some distance, but the clamour behind him is fierce and Schmidt now has an Irish-qualified starter at every province, which is his dream scenario.

The coach's reliance on the Munster man was exposed when he played on with one arm in Cardiff, but when Marmion came in the sky didn't fall. Ireland beat England without their Lion a week later, with McGrath coming off the bench and raising the roof with a clever kick in behind.

Suddenly, the vista didn't look so appalling.

The specialist positions have long been a particular concern in Irish rugby. At hooker, the union have looked abroad and brought in three project players to help supplement the rosters.

At scrum-half, they've found an indigenous solution to a position where Ireland have never been very good at producing many top-level operators.

Now, there is real competition to get into the November squad with Cooney, Marmion and McGrath needing big performances in the coming weeks to put their hands up.

The Gonzaga graduate has a chance to force his way into the equation if he can continue his early-season form and continue to guide his new team around the park in tandem with Christian Lealiifano.

The impact of Paddy Jackson's unavailability has been lessened by Cooney's reliable goal-kicking and he was even able to deputise at No 10 for a period last season at Connacht.

But scrum-half is his bread and butter and tonight he will get the opportunity to go head to head with his old rival Marmion as the westerners make the long journey to the Kingspan Stadium.

Pienaar will never be forgotten in his own little corner of Belfast, but the new man's performances have been met with approving glances.

"It's the same every year when somebody goes," Rory Best said this week.

"It happened to be Ruan last season and they go, 'Oh, you'll not be able to replace him'.

"But then we've signed in John Cooney who has had a lot of potential but maybe hasn't had a good run of it.

"He's come into us and he's had a good run of it. He has a fresh approach and he's been really impressive with his attitude.

"That in turn has brought along the likes of Paul Marshall and Dave Shanahan, who now, instead of it being 'Ruan Pienaar (always starts)' unless he breaks both legs, to look, there's an opportunity here for everyone."

Cooney is undaunted by the pressure of taking over from a legend. Confidence has never been an issue.

"I'd rather fill big boots than small ones," he said ahead of the start of this season.

"It's a big challenge but that's what I'm here for. Playing time was the main thing, with Ruan leaving I thought I could get games here.

"I've been unlucky with a few injuries and stuff. When I went to Connacht, Kieran was going well and I'd had three shoulder surgeries which set me back.

"Since then, I've had seven or eight months injury-free and want to press on. Me and Kieran, the games were sometimes split between us but I want to start the big games. I don't want to be playing one week and out the next."

At Ulster, he gets the added bonus of working directly with Dwayne Peel who joined the province from Bristol last summer.

A world-class scrum-half in his playing days, the former Wales international is the ideal mentor for a player who may feel as if he's making up for lost time as a starter.

His medal cabinet, however, is likely the envy of most in the Ulster dressing-room.

Having won silverware at Leinster and Connacht, his mission is to deliver the winning touch to Irish rugby's great under-achievers.

Playing a central role will only enhance his Ireland chances.

Born in Scotland, he turned down advances from the Scottish Rugby Union to keep faith in his own ambition to play for the country he represented at underage.

"There's opportunities for him," Kiss said of his international ambitions. "But if he's do to anything, he knows he has to perform week in, week out up here.

"He's got strings to his bow with the kicking and things as well. He's still building the combinations but we measure the metres and he's certainly ran some."

Sometimes a player just needs to be backed.

Cooney knows he's the No 1 at the Kingspan Stadium and he has responded in kind with a series of strong performances that have propelled him into Ireland contention.

The international selectors will be keeping a keen eye on proceedings this evening, while Ulster will be centre-stage next weekend when they open the European season against Wasps at home.

The province is the perfect shop-window for a player with big ambitions and the locals are learning that perhaps there is life after Pienaar.



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