I'm here to fill Pienaar's big boots, says Ulster's new scrum-half John Cooney
As he prepares for his first season in Ulster colours, John Cooney is looking to prove the old adage that one man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.
It was in the days before last year’s big kick-off that news first emerged that his new employer’s long-serving scrum-half, and Kingspan’s favourite adopted son, Ruan Pienaar would be pushed towards the exit door at the behest of the IRFU and their desire to see an Irish-qualified scrum-half in Belfast.
And while the local faithful remained up in arms for months, Cooney sensed a chance.
Having originally left his native Leinster in search of more regular playing time, he moved to Connacht only for injuries and the presence of Kieran Marmion to again leave him kicking his heels on the sidelines far more frequently than he would have liked.
The Pienaar controversy quickly had him looking north.
“I remember hearing about it on the radio, that he’d have to leave,” recalled the 27-year-old, who is unlikely to feature in Thursday’s friendly with Wasps but could do so a week later against Northampton.
“I just thought straight away that there’d be an opportunity there. I texted my agent saying it would be great for me.
“I was hoping Ulster would get on to me about it and a few weeks later they did. It was all pretty straightforward.”
Rather than shy away from the idea of being ‘the man signed to replace Pienaar’, the Dubliner embraces the idea.
“It’s a big deal with him leaving but I prefer coming in where a big player has been before because I love a challenge,” he added confidently. “I’d rather fill big boots than small ones.
“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.”
If Cooney arrives lacking games under the belt, the same cannot be said for medals in the drawer.
The man who won his first Ireland cap against Japan back in June picked up a PRO12 medal with Connacht two seasons ago, and with Leinster was part of squads that won two league titles, the Heineken Cup and the Challenge Cup.
Indeed, he came off the bench the day the RDS outfit dismantled Ulster in Twickenham to claim Europe’s top prize five years ago, admitting he’s found it strange that the northern province have failed to kick on in the intervening seasons.
“I would have been surprised with the squads they’ve had over the years that they haven’t won things,” he said.
“If you take the Connacht team that won the PRO12, you wouldn’t necessarily say it was better than the Ulster team on paper.
“But it’s more than a squad, you need the culture and the confidence. People are concentrating on the players we don’t have but I think the culture we have will be completely different.”
Such a change, Cooney believes, will be brought about by a new coaching staff that he is already more familiar with than most.
While Director of Rugby Les Kiss, who Cooney enjoyed working with in past national camps, is still in place, there has been wholesale change underneath.
Jono Gibbes, an assistant during Cooney’s time at Leinster, has been recruited from Clermont to be head coach, while his former RDS team-mate Aaron Dundon has taken charge of the scrum.
In addition to those familiar faces, 2005 Lions scrum-half Dwayne Peel will look after the backs.
“Jono is coming in and his aim is to make us a lot tougher,” said Cooney, whose mother hails from Sligo but used to live and work in Belfast.
“And it’s been amazing working with Dwayne and seeing what I can add from him. It’s amazing having a backs coach who knows so much about scrum-half play.”
If that has been the high point of a pre-season that began late thanks to his summer Ireland involvement, not everything has been quite so enjoyable.
“The lads, when we were in a camp in Portugal last week, they were saying there was an intensity that they hadn’t seen before,” he revealed.
“Coming back three weeks late, I found the training very tough. That first week I could barely walk.
“I’d heard mention of these hill runs on the north coast but didn’t think we were actually doing it until I saw it on the schedule for week two.
“The only silver lining was they took us to the Ramore after for a load of cake. I’d go back for the cake but I hope to never see those dunes again.”
A man who arrives in Ulster simply wanting to play rugby, he hopes all the uphill struggles are firmly behind him.