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'You don't have to try to create animosity': Cooney and Murray on the battle to be Ireland's number nine


Getting on: Conor Murray and John Cooney have known each other from their early rugby days

Getting on: Conor Murray and John Cooney have known each other from their early rugby days

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Getting on: Conor Murray and John Cooney have known each other from their early rugby days

The rivals for the throne sit side by side in plastic chairs, grins on their faces and a healthy scepticism in their voices.

All season, their ears have been burning. Cooney or Murray? Murray or Cooney? Once, we obsessed about out-half rivalries in this part of the world, but the debate is around the battle for the No.9 jersey.

John Cooney and Conor Murray first vied for the jersey in 2009 when Cooney was named to start against France for the Ireland Under-20s.

As he remembers it, he threw a pass that flew over Ian Madigan's head, and a week later the man from Patrickswell was in the jersey.

Within two years, Murray was playing at the World Cup and in 2012 Cooney won a Heineken Cup off the bench for Leinster.

But it's taken more than a decade for them to fully renew their rivalry. Murray has been at the top of the game throughout that decade, while his old colleague took the scenic route.

Cooney deputised for Murray in four Six Nations games last season, but he never felt he was there on merit and that was reflected in his meagre minutes.

He was cut from the World Cup squad before they'd even played a warm-up match, but used that period to hone his game, used that disappointment as motivation and his response has been remarkable.

So, he's been putting the heat on Murray, who is fully aware of the clamour for the Ulsterman's inclusion.

As a youngster coming through, he played alongside Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton during their fierce rivalry.

That coldness is not his style.

"You don't have to try to create animosity. If you get along, you get along. You train as hard as you can," he said yesterday before Cooney interjected.

"Conor and I have known each other for so long, it's a bit different," he said.

Murray agreed: "It might be new to you guys but we've known each other for quite a while, so you can continue to build it up."

The decision to put the two players up together at yesterday's press conference was an unusual one. It could have been awkward; they knew what was coming but it worked out pretty well.

"It's clear and obvious with the season that John's having that's obviously going to cause a lot of ripples, a lot of chat, and that can be a big distraction," Murray said.

"For me, it kind of narrows the focus, it motivates me to play as well as I can, to train as well as I can to put myself in the best position to get the nod at the weekend and stay in that jersey. That's what everyone wants.

"We're both very ambitious, we want to play, we want to start, we want to wear the No.9. But I think it's a testament...Lukey (McGrath) is involved as well and the three of us, our relationships are really good.

"There's a lot of talk outside about the rivalry etc, but when we come into Ireland camp, we're genuinely trying to help each other. Whoever gets the nod at the weekend, I think there's just a respect there."

Rather than be bitter about Murray's success, Cooney says he drew inspiration when watching from afar.

"I knew he was going to do great things," he said. "It definitely gave me more drive to see how well he did and it probably took me a bit longer to get there.

"It was probably something good, I could see that it was attainable down the line and I could learn a lot from him.

"I have probably been in camp about three or four years, so to get to pick his brain and see the way he plays is great.

"Over the years I've enjoyed seeing his journey and for me it was obviously a bit different, from early days playing with him and still learning off him at the moment.

"We still picked each other's brains last week and it is reflective of him - for all the stuff he has done in his career and to still be so approachable.

"There is no ego with him in terms of he will listen to exactly what you say and whether you have a point. He listens really well.

"So, as a player, I think that shows a lot of respect from him that he is so approachable and wants to learn about the game."

After missing out on the World Cup, Cooney resolved to focus on the positive regardless of the way the selection falls.

"I'm going to be happy in myself, happy in my environment and that's generally going to get me to play my best," he said.

"I'm here to try to do that, play my best, whether it is 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes off the bench or starting, it doesn't really matter, it's how I play and to be part of the collective and the tough team we want to be.

"Whether that's on the bench or a starter, that doesn't really matter."

Possible Ireland team to play Wales on Saturday: J Larmour; A Conway, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (capt), C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; P O'Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Belfast Telegraph