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Ireland call just reward for John Cooney after great Ulster form

By Jonathan Bradley

When still a Connacht player, John Cooney first heard that Ruan Pienaar was to leave Ulster while he was driving his car and listening to the radio.

The 28-year-old Dubliner was straight on to his agent to see if there'd be an opening in the northern province and, with the benefit of regular game-time, has since flourished at Kingspan Stadium culminating in yesterday's call-up for Ireland's three-Test tour to Australia next month.

Having had the option of declaring for Scotland through parentage, it's a case of faith rewarded for the man who recently scooped a hat-trick of end-of-season gongs at the Ulster Rugby Awards.

While he couldn't quite crack the squad for the November internationals or Six Nations, his form couldn't be ignored.

Having made 25 appearances for his adopted province throughout the year, he was a bright spark in a season that didn't always offer many reasons for cheer, quickly becoming a fan favourite for his attitude, commitment and, above all else, strong performances. His goal kicking and a willingness to stick up for himself and team-mates, be it on social media or to sizeable opposition props, was only an added bonus.

With no disrespect meant to the great Pienaar, it was telling how little his departure was cited as a reason for the province's struggles this year. With Cooney having arrived saying he'd rather fill big boots than small ones, he excelled in what was always likely to be a difficult situation for an incoming player and his call-up is just reward for his efforts, even if he's had to cancel a planned holiday to Thailand to make the trip.

Not one, it seems, to rest on his laurels, after Sunday's win over Ospreys, when he was named man of the match as Ulster secured Champions Cup rugby for next season, he told the assembled reporters that there was always another level, that he'd need to be better again next season.

For now, that will mean earning playing time against the Wallabies. Having edged out Leinster's Luke McGrath for the squad, he will be one of only three scrum-halves in the party alongside Conor Murray and his old Connacht team-mate Kieran Marmion.

The role of back-up to Murray can seem a thankless task at times, with Joe Schmidt tending to get as much out of the Munsterman as he can from game to game, but so close to a World Cup in Japan, this series may be seen as a real chance to give others some experience in a front-line side.

Cooney wasn't the only one no doubt having a quiet celebration yesterday as his Ulster team-mate Rob Herring was also called up, his impressive form enough to see him ahead of both Niall Scannell and James Tracy.

The rest of the Ulster contingent making the journey includes the usual suspects, captain Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson, the latter's inclusion a big boost for Joe Schmidt after he overcame a knee injury to take his place.

The lock, who spent last summer on tour with the British and Irish Lions, hasn't played since the end of April but is fit to travel and, alongside James Ryan and the uncapped Scarlets player Tadhg Beirne, gives Schmidt real options in the second-row.

Jordi Murphy, who joins Ulster next year, is also included.

"This has probably been the most difficult selection process for the coaching group to date," said Schmidt who was at Belfast City Hall yesterday for a Civic Reception to honour his Grand Slam-winning heroes.

"We sat down on Monday morning to review the last pieces of footage and to discuss the balance and combinations that we felt we might need in Australia. At midday (Wednesday) we made the final decisions which included a number of very tough calls and some players are incredibly unlucky to miss out on selection.

"Over the past couple of months the national coaches have spent time in the provinces and been in communication with the provincial coaches who have done a super job in managing the players across the season.

"The coaching group are excited by the challenge that this three-Test tour will present and, from talking to the players, we get a sense that they too are excited about going on Tour and testing themselves against one of the best sides in the world in their own backyard."

Like Ireland, Australia are coached by a former Leinster boss, in their case Michael Cheika.

The Sydney native who took over the Wallabies in 2014 believes the visit of Ireland will prove a good barometer of where his team stand just over a year out from the World Cup in Japan.

Two summers ago, they were whitewashed by England in a three-game series on home soil, Eddie Jones's men then the Grand Slam winners from the previous year, just as Ireland are now.

"We faced Grand Slam champions then and with Grand Slam champions coming now I think it is a good gauge," said Cheika.

"How we've been changing the team around, and where we are now.

"It's going to be tough, but we're looking forward to putting ourselves up against a contrasting style of play. They are obviously very well coached, they've got a clear and coherent plan they want to deliver and they deliver that plan every week.

"That's what's got them to number two in the world and it's a place that we'll be looking to cut them down from when they come over here."

The head coach also ruled out that the possibility that his full-back Israel Folau would be a distraction during the tour.

Although he received no official sanction, the 62-times capped star was under fire recently for anti-gay remarks posted on his social media accounts which he says stem from his religious beliefs.

"I don't believe it's going to be an ongoing issue because I don't believe it's going to be ongoing," he said.

"He wants to play the footie he's been playing for the last few weeks, which has been awesome."

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