Thursday 22 March 2018

Patience paying off for classy Cooney

Confident scrum-half is leading Ulster's charge in Europe since making the move to Belfast

John Cooney: ‘I didn’t try and change my personality. If you just be yourself and come into an environment prepared to work hard then you earn respect and people will accept you’. Photo: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
John Cooney: ‘I didn’t try and change my personality. If you just be yourself and come into an environment prepared to work hard then you earn respect and people will accept you’. Photo: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Within half an hour of the final whistle in the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo last June, John Cooney was out quick-time to face the travelling media. Suited and booted in gear obviously chosen by someone well removed from the IRFU committee, he exuded a heady mix of relief and optimism.

Finishing an Ireland tour on a high would have been virtually a unique occurrence for anyone who soldiered through the 1990s and well into the new century, but even for the current generation who expect success it's clearly a special feeling: at last, a night on the town with all the hard work having paid off. And then holidays. The picture of contentment?

"I was yeah, but that was difficult," he says. "I was the last player to get capped on the tour. Everyone else had been capped by the second game so I just decided to keep the head in the hope that I got that cap - and luckily I did in the end.

"I think it kind of epitomises my career to be honest: keeping the head down hoping that it will come good because when you're the last person the pressure is definitely on. If I'd been the only person to come home without a cap I'd have been devastated."

At the time Cooney spoke more about the future at home rather than his bit part in a 35-13 win. In truth, the adventure was going to be the journey from Galway to Belfast, not Ireland to the US and Japan. And if that took off the way he hoped, then maybe Ireland's Guinness Series five months later might be something he'd be a part of.

Well, the sequence reads: full-on involvement from the start this season with Ulster; no foot in the Ireland door in November; and last week came the confirmation from Joe Schmidt that any run in the Six Nations would come only via injury in the group ahead of him: Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath.

Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

This is all a bit difficult for Cooney to swallow, because after 26 games spread over the last two long seasons with Connacht - where he was never first choice - this afternoon in Coventry he will be clocking up a 17th appearance from Ulster's 20 games this season. This is transformative on two levels: for a player with three shoulder operations and a broken jaw on his medical chart it is stunning consistency; and to be undisputed first choice is a unique experience for him.

What he can't control however, is the form of his rivals, all three of whom are playing well. So while Joe Schmidt might have got a frosty response with the telephonic equivalent of the 'Dear John' letter last Wednesday afternoon, the coach might easily have asked what he might say to whomever of the other three should make way. So Cooney will have to dip into the reserves of mental strength he's been developing to keep focused on the day job.

"I'm happy for the journey I've been on because I've adapted my mind way more," he says of the setbacks. "It was probably one of my biggest weaknesses when I started off - my mindset. Now I look on it as one of my biggest strengths. I've a lot more self-confidence. I think of all the work my family and loved ones have done for me. I'm not going to change things now because that's what put the fire in my belly."

While the rest of us are checking news items or traffic reports of a morning, John Cooney is listening to whatever positive app is his current flavour to help get him in the right frame of mind en route to work. Podcasts on positive thinking, psychology books, the titbits that fall out of the mouth of Kobe Bryant - Cooney has catholic tastes when it comes to getting his mind right.

"There's so much information out there for everyone online and on your phone, even just downloading an app," he says. "I'd listen to stuff on my way in every morning to training. It's part of attacking the day rather than just getting through it. I'd have read golf books about the psychology of golf, how it relates to goal kicking in terms of standing over the ball, and what you're thinking about, not really thinking about the process but naturally going through the gears and stuff like that. It makes a big difference because I'm a relatively new goal kicker, so the psychology of it was something I needed to understand pretty quickly, dealing with the pressure and learning to embrace it."

Might he start by asking his team-mates to score tries a little closer to the posts?

"I know!" he says.

For example last weekend's win over La Rochelle saw first Rory Best and then Jacob Stockdale score out wide in the same corner. In the Pro14 Cooney is an impressive 16 from 18 on the penalty front. It slips to 11/20 for tries, given the number of wide-out touchdowns.

"There was a swirling wind as well last week because my first kick went five to 10 metres left to right, and the second I put perfectly outside the left post and it didn't move at all, and I'm thinking: what the hell?"

The Ulster fans aren't complaining. Having done enough of that over the enforced departure of Ruan Pienaar last season they warmed pretty quickly to his successor. Because he has done a fine job. First he had to get his head around shifting province for the second time in his career.

"I think a lot of it depends on the individual concerned, and if you're competitive then you just can't be staying there if you're fourth choice. People find it difficult to leave their family and move to a new scenario but the way I look at it is, I've got to live in Galway, I've got to live in Dublin, I've got to live in Belfast, three of the major cities in the country and I'm happy that I got to live somewhere else in exchange for my efforts.

"The whole thing about leaving didn't deter me whatsoever because I didn't try and change my personality and stuff. If you just be yourself and come into an environment prepared to work hard then you earn respect and people will accept you. And I worked pretty hard in pre-season. I had a lot of things to live up to with Ruan leaving and the only way I was going to get there was by working hard. I think people respected that. That was my psychology anyway.

"I was really looking forward to getting up here - the change of scenario was what I needed because I needed to start (games) here and get a lot more game-time, and even getting more reps in training during the week . . . that makes a huge difference to your performance at the weekend. It's difficult when you get a few sub reps, about two or three games in a row, and then you'd be on the bench for the big games. It was exactly what I wanted and exactly what I needed. So I've really enjoyed the continuity here, the game time and I've really enjoyed the atmosphere and I've fitted in with all the players, so I'm really liking it."

In his first game, against the Cheetahs, he covered more ground than before or since in his effort to create the right impression. Matching the work-rate with the technical stuff has kept him comfortably in credit with supporters who are constantly on edge. This afternoon will be another test for them, so they'll need Cooney to deliver again in pursuit of the win needed to guarantee them knockout rugby.

"Listening to reporters and the media on the weekend they were saying it's going be one of the tightest last days they've ever seen with so many outcomes that can happen," he says. "By the time we kick off I think we're going to know the different criteria involved and what points we need, but at the end of the day if we don't go out looking for four points first and foremost then we're going to struggle. We need to win the game."

If that works out it's hard to imagine a scenario where he is not at the heart of it.

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