Belfast Telegraph

Perfect gift would be a win over my old pals, says Cooney


Battle: Ulster’s John Cooney is relishing facing his former team
Battle: Ulster’s John Cooney is relishing facing his former team
John Cooney pictured with former Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

There may have been a few light-hearted jibes from his team-mates that John Cooney has a foot in each camp ahead of tomorrow's Guinness PRO14 quarter-final between Ulster and Connacht, but the northern province's scrum-half has assured that friendships will be firmly put to one side for 80 minutes this weekend.

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The 29-year-old, who spent three seasons in Galway before joining Ulster in 2017, marked his birthday on Wednesday, but has postponed any celebrations until after the play-off clash (kick-off 5.35pm).

Presumably for logistical reasons a few Connacht players got the party invite before his current team-mates, much to their apparent chagrin, with Cooney joking that a message sent to the recently retired Andrew Trimble had gone unopened in the aftermath.

There are more serious matters at hand, however, and indeed it's one of Cooney's closest friends in the Connacht squad that will have received plenty of attention in Ulster team meetings this week.

Jack Carty has had a season to remember, receiving a nomination for the Irish Rugby Players' Player of the Year this week and has vaulted into consideration for the World Cup later this year. Cooney was on the field when his erstwhile club team-mate made his Ireland debut against Italy out in Rome in February and has enjoyed watching the 26-year-old's continued rise this season.

"It has been great," he said.

"I have seen his development over the last five or six years and he has consistently improved a lot, worked on himself a lot.

"I know he has gone to see a sports psychologist a lot and he has worked with different ways of improving himself and especially his kicking, he has done a lot with Richie Murphy.

"He has always been a player who could do everything but he just needed that confidence to back himself," he added.

A friendly wager between the two over kicking percentages saw Carty recently have to pick up the bill for dinner in Dublin - although Cooney notes the Connacht man will have already won this season's bet - but that has not stopped the pair using each other as a sounding board.

"We are in a WhatsApp group and we talk quite a lot," revealed Cooney. "It's ideas that we find beneficial to each other, certain podcasts we would usually share with each other.

"When we were together playing half-back we hung out a lot together and we always tried to pick each other's brains. It has definitely improved our games.

"I think for both of us it has helped our performances."

Their mobile communication isn't always so mutually beneficial though.

"Last time we played I had a video of me tackling him and I sent him a slow-mo of it," Cooney laughed. "He looked a bit nervous, so I will probably send him that again."

Such is the case in interprovincial rugby though, the best of friends become the best of enemies upon hearing the first whistle and Cooney is desperate to get one over his former side, with the westerners enjoying a three-game winning streak against his present employers.

"When you come on the field, he knows I am going to go after him and he is going to go after me. It is part of the game and you enjoy it," insists Cooney.

"As a scrum-half you normally try to get pressure on the 10 when he's kicking, he knows it's going to happen and he knows it happened here and he was talking to me during the game. It's enjoyable that's for sure.

"This is a different Connacht, normally you have a Connacht with a chip on their shoulder. They are coming here pretty confident having beaten us twice, they have started well against us, in the first 20 minutes they are 14-0 up against us in both games so we have analysed that and how important it is we start well this week.

"We've started well in training but we know it is not going to come just automatically in the game, throughout the week we are just going to have to make sure everyone is clued in and training really well."

Both these sides have already experienced knock-out rugby this season, Ulster losing to Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals in March with Connacht falling to Sale at the same stage of the Challenge Cup one day prior.

As the high stakes games now come thick and fast, Cooney believes Dan McFarland's side can learn from their defeat. While the immediate focus in the aftermath centred on Jacob Stockdale's fumbled 'try', Ulster's goal-kicker was left with regrets too, missing the conversion of Luke Marshall's try that would have given his side a late lead.

"I think it is something we can take a lot of workings from," he said of the heartbreaking three-point reverse.

"It highlighted how important small moments are, and key margins. For myself, I missed an easy kick, after the game I did not even notice anything Jacob had done, I had completely forgotten about it, for me my role was to get the kicks and I missed an easy one. A team is a collective of individuals, we all have to make sure we get our roles now.

"I know that now and I know going into this game we can take a lot of learnings from that play-off game. I was cramping up before, but I think I was too laid back. It was similar to the one Johnny (Sexton) missed against New Zealand. It is a kick where you do not know whether to do your routine or just tip it over.

"I have always gotten away with just tipping it over, and eventually it was going to come and bite me and it did. It was nothing to do with nerves, I thought just tip it over the bar and just hooked it a little bit. Now I have practiced that kick a couple of times and my first kick against Edinburgh was that kick, so from now on I am not going to be as relaxed."

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