Sunday 15 December 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Cooney primed for big Six Nations role after World Cup snub'

John Cooney’s recent good form with Ulster looks certain to put him into the plans of new Ireland coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
John Cooney’s recent good form with Ulster looks certain to put him into the plans of new Ireland coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

By channelling his World Cup disappointment into his Ulster performances, John Cooney is putting himself in the frame for a big Six Nations role.

For whatever reason, the 29-year-old was not fully trusted by Joe Schmidt. He was involved throughout last year's tournament, but spent much of the time watching from the bench as the Kiwi gave Conor Murray time to try playing his way into form.

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He came off the bench in four of the five matches, but found himself out of the squad for the final game against Wales.

When the warm-ups came around, he didn't get a look-in and was long gone from the squad when the final round of cuts came with Luke McGrath edging Kieran Marmion for the final scrum-half spot.

Cooney's form deserved better.

He is the chief play-maker and talisman with a team that ran Leinster close in a European Cup quarter-final and also got to a PRO14 quarter-final.

Since taking the opportunity to replace Ruan Pienaar as Ulster's No 9 in 2017, he has thrived and is on his way to becoming a cult hero at Kingspan Stadium.

While his predecessor remained unimpressed, it will be interesting to see what Andy Farrell makes of the steadily improving Dubliner.

He was in Belfast last Friday night to watch Cooney and Co beat a below par Clermont and, with Murray still struggling to get back to his best, has an interesting call to make on his scrum-halves in the coming months.

Ulster coach Dan McFarland first worked with the Scotland-born scrum-half when he joined Pat Lam's Connacht on loan in 2014 and, when he returned from his own stint as Scotland assistant coach, he's entrusted Cooney to be a key man in his Ulster team.

"John always had the equipment, the skill-set was always there," McFarland said. "He's obviously improved. He's improved his passing, his kicking and decision-making.

"That has been a gradual process and I don't think there is any one thing that has come out of his game.

"I wonder whether, for him, it was just the opportunity to come and show what he could do and do really well at an audience that appreciated that.

"I'm not saying that couldn't happen in Connacht, it might not have been the right stage in his career and that was part of his development.

"But he has certainly come out of himself and he's able to produce those big moments."

McFarland believes his No 9 can improve further and that's good news for the Ravenhill faithful and for Ireland fans looking for green shoots after a dreadfully disappointing World Cup.

"He's still got a way to develop and he'll still keep working on lots of aspects of his game, not least finishing off moves where he's part of a great line-break," he said with a wry smile, referencing Cooney's slip close to the line against Clermont.

"It's impressive from him and his mind-set around that development."

Like McFarland, Jordi Murphy worked with Cooney at a previous club in Leinster and the back-row has been impressed with the way he is leading Ulster.

"I always knew he had that in him, I'd played some under age stuff with him and he was fantastic, at Leinster he was stuck in a pecking order behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss," Murphy observed after taking a coaching session with 100 school children in Belfast yesterday - an event that was hosted by club sponsors Kingspan.

"He went to Connacht and Kieran Marmion is there and he has been fantastic for them in the last few years, so he never really had that run of games and form he wanted.

"He picked up a couple of knocks over the years, coming up here has been brilliant for him, he has established himself as No1 and has been injury-free for the last few years.

"That just shows that a bit of form and continuity can really help anyone and for him it definitely has done."

Having received that backing, Cooney has thrived. Who is to say he wouldn't do the same in green, if given the chance?

Irish Independent

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