Friday 24 January 2020

Ulster hero Cooney keeps his dancing feet firmly on the ground amid Ireland calls

Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Right now, everything John Cooney touches turns to gold but Ulster's man of the moment is determined not to let his good run of form go to his head.

He is aware of the clamour for his inclusion in Ireland's starting XV for their Six Nations opener against Scotland, but he's learnt not to get carried away.

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Two tries against Harlequins on Friday, taking his total for the season to seven, as part of a 19-point haul did little to dampen the noise around the 29-year-old Dubliner.

But he is determined to focus on his Ulster performance and let the rest take care of itself. "I've never been the type to get hype, it's always been hard work," Cooney said. "I'm very responsive to other athletes and Kobe Bryant talks about mental toughness being an even keel, never too high, never too low. For me, at the low points, it was trying to never be too low and stay on top of that.

"I think I backed it up this week because I didn't want things to go to my head, I wanted to go out and perform as I knew that I could so that's what I want to do each week.

"It's harder to take positives when you're low. I'm just working hard and training the way we're training, it's harder than games. Games actually feel easier."

Rather than focus on his run of tries, Cooney was most pleased with his big defensive moments after forcing the turnover that led to his own try and saving a later score with a tackle on Ross Chisholm in the second half of a comprehensive bonus-point win.

Fresh

"The way we train at the moment, Dan (McFarland) pushes us to be fit and get the ball away as quick as possible. I'm coming out of games feeling really fresh and feel like I can play every week," he said of the Ulster head coach.

"For me that's probably more coming off the back of not making the World Cup squad. One of things that was highlighted was that I had to keep working defensively so to come out with moments like that is probably more important.

"I think for me the best thing I've developed is winning that next moment.

"The one I got charged down, the next one I got to the halfway line. I've learned not to get too disappointed when I make mistakes.

"As a scrum-half, you're going to make mistakes but it's winning that next moment and bouncing back. It's something I try to drive the players around me.

"Eric (O'Sullivan) dropped the ball and I told him to relax, to win that next one, and it's something that we're doing."

An avid Liverpool fan who grew up worshipping Michael Owen, Cooney demonstrated his footballing skills on Friday night, while he has developed a real finisher's instinct when finding the try-line.

And he credits the influence of former Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel, now Ulster's backs coach, with encouraging him to sniff out tries.

"Peely in the summer said he wanted more from us in terms of tries, rather than just support lines, to have more of a crack ourselves.

"That got into my head and in the summer I worked on that and wanted to try to get more tries," he explained.

"It's going back to training in the week and seeing different pictures.

"Darren Cave always used to talk about the older you get the more you're seeing things you've seen before and I find that the more I see it in training, the more it opens up in games.

"Things have just been coming my way and, some of them go back to football. I love football. Dan probably gets annoyed when I'm kicking a ball in the gym, but it's just something I love and it's coming through in the games," he revealed.

Niggles

"I think it's just consistency of action and working hard. I've always worked hard and tied into the mental approach through Dan, the psychology.

"Through injuries I've gotten a lot better and it's something I practise a lot. People forget you might have niggles, I've a foot niggle, but I'm going to the 'mind-gym' as Joe (Schmidt) calls it and working on the mental aspect of kicking kicks when I can't kick and that's a point of difference when I look around other people. Day to day I try to attack each day and I see people meandering through days and it's something I try to work hard at it.

"I am enjoying it. I'm obviously making a lot of mistakes as well. A scrum-half touches the ball a lot and it ended up well in the end. The way we're playing as a collective is huge."

That should see Ulster into the last eight of the Champions Cup.

Whether Cooney's stunning form earns him the Ireland No 9 jersey is the big question that Andy Farrell will be pondering over Christmas.

Irish Independent

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