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John Cooney rises up Ireland pecking order as Ulster scrum-half eyes Six Nations debut

 

By Michael Sadlier

While most were doubtless distracted by the high profile omission of Leinster's Ross Byrne for Connacht's uncapped out-half Jack Carty from Joe Schmidt's expanded Six Nations squad for the first two rounds of action, it might have gone somewhat unnoticed that John Cooney has seemingly been fast-tracked up the pecking order.

And though this is not purely on merit, Cooney will still be anxiously eyeing up potentially making his Six Nations debut.

With no Luke McGrath, injury having ruled the Leinster scrum-half out of the Championship, and no sign of Connacht's Kieran Marmion - who is still recovering from ankle surgery he underwent after November's seismic win over the All Blacks - in Schmidt's lengthy list of players, Cooney now looks as if he could be benching behind Conor Murray when Ireland host England on the first weekend of February.

With the squad only covering the first two games - after England they play Scotland away a week later - it means that apart from nailed-on starter Murray and Cooney, the only other scrum-half is uncapped Connacht player Caolin Blade.

With Schmidt tending to opt for those with experience, the four-times capped Cooney could be in line to make his Six Nations bow should Murray be brought off, though only a knock or the game being in the bag are likely to see one of Ireland's talismanic players leave the field.

Having said that, Cooney will know all about Blade from their time in Connacht and will know that he must keep the younger man firmly back as number three scrum-half in Schmidt's initial squad.

For Cooney, then, this is about staying fit - he is thought to be on course to play for Ulster at Leicester on Saturday after missing the Racing game with a back issue - and hoping that Marmion doesn't, somehow, get added to the squad for the opening game, though the assumption is that had the latter been in the frame then he would have been named yesterday.

Though the autumn's World Cup is far too distant to be pondering on, should Cooney really impress either at Carton House or from any game-time he could get against England and Scotland, then he might yet squeeze on board the plane with his case being further strengthened by his goal-kicking.

Time will tell but, right now, Cooney has an opportunity to get firmly in Schmidt's vision.

But what of Ulster's other five squad members? And, yes, that doesn't include Chris Farrell who has to be counted as a Munster player.

Iain Henderson will also be pretty keen to get back and though breaking up the partnership of Devin Toner and James Ryan hardly looks a runner barring injury, the Ulsterman still needs to keep Tadhg Beirne at bay.

There is, of course, another way in as Henderson can play blindside flanker - as can Beirne - but dislodging Peter O'Mahony isn't on and, anyway, Schmidt prefers to play the Ulsterman at lock and still probably favours his winning combination of strength and dynamism which looks a fairly potent option from the bench.

Whether he returns for Ulster first is a moot point, but Henderson could certainly do with getting game-time before heading to Ireland camp.

Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale look to be shoo-ins to start, as the skipper is still very much on his game and a key component of the team while Stockdale is, well, in simply sensational try-scoring form.

Jordi Murphy doubtless knows the score as Sean O'Brien is back on board with Josh van der Flier presumably in pole position to start at seven as O'Brien is hardly match-fit.

Will Addison's form merits inclusion on the bench as he slips easily into covering wing, centre or full-back.

He has some serious competition though with Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, assuming that Schmidt's preferred starting back three would have Rob Kearney at full-back and Stockdale and Keith Earls on the wings.

Essentially, then, Ulster are looking at two certain-looking starters, namely Best and Stockdale with Henderson and Cooney benching and maybe Addison joining them.

And those who didn't make the cut?

You have to feel for Rob Herring, and Schmidt in an unusually lengthy missive name-checking those who are out, stated that the Cape Town native had been unlucky.

He then went on to mention Stuart McCloskey who, like Herring, was cut from the autumn squad and also dropped in Eric O'Sullivan, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Billy Burns and Sean Reidy.

All very un-Schmidt-like, so is he softening in his last year with Ireland?

Not likely, just a reminder that he's still scrutinising everyone and everything.

Belfast Telegraph

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