Cooney sparkles yet again as Ulster take major step towards knockouts with bonus point win at Harlequins
If John Cooney entered last night as the form number nine in Ireland, after Ulster's win over Harlequins in Twickenham he may well stand peerless regardless of position.
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Having already provided telling contributions in the province's three prior Champions Cup victories, he was the catalyst once again in London, scoring a pair of tries while saving another for good measure in the 34-10, bonus-point win.
While Quins were more patchwork than quarters on a night they heavily rotated with one eye already back on the Premiership clash with Wasps next weekend, they remained a tough nut to crack early in a game that featured a particularly uninspiring first-half.
It was just at the conclusion of that otherwise forgettable opening 40 that Cooney would make his first telling contribution, finishing off a fine team move that went almost the length of the field.
A try-saving tackle just prior to the side's second score of the night would help swing the game in his side's favour while his own second try on the hour mark was a fine piece of solo skill.
A performance to keep the debate stirring over just who will wear the Irish nine jersey come the Six Nations, Ulster were just thankful he delivered once again in white on a night that began in much trickier fashion than the final margin would suggest.
In the early going, the visitors lacked fluidity while three attempts to replicate last week’s crucial mauled effort slipped away inside the game’s first 20 minutes.
Losing starting fly-half Billy Burns with only 90 seconds on the clock would not have been something of a nightmare scenario but the former Gloucester man continued after a lengthy spell of treatment on a shoulder injured tackling Alex Dombrandt. Still feeling the ailing joint as Ulster tentatively tried to feel their way into the game, responsibility was given to Cooney to put Ulster’s first penalty into the corner only for a rare mistake to see him miss touch.
Harlequins were in a giving mood though, with the same man afforded another chance soon after. This time he aim at the posts, the successful kick greeted with a cheer from a sizeable expat contingent behind the poles.
Early Harlequins indiscipline continued to open the door for the Ulster but the second attempt at setting up the maul had only moderately more success than the first. This time the penalty found touch and the pack would rumble for a few metres before Kieran Treadwell knocked on to end the attack.
Nor would the third time prove a charm, Dan McFarland’s pack penalised at close quarters in a game where the first quarter passed without much else in the way of incident.
While Marcell Coetzee was his usual source of go forward ball, attempts to break down the aggressive Quins defence by more intricate measures were proving fruitless, the first attempt to go to their oft-used cross-field kick tactic only seeing Louis Ludik bundled into touch.
The Premiership side were living off scraps themselves but, after their first period of sustained period pressure began with a James Chisholm steal at the breakdown, they would draw level five minutes before the half.
Frustration that James Lang’s penalty knotted the score despite Ulster bossing the possession was only compounded by the sight of tight-head Marty Moore departing the scene injured as the outside centre lined up the kick.
Having shown little attacking spark, when the province’s breakthrough did come, it was from well inside their own ‘22’, the eventual scorer no surprise to anyone who has followed this European campaign.
A belatedly incisive venture forward, Billy Burns injected some pace into a well-worked scrum-move and his offload to Stockdale was timed just so the full-back could avoid the despairing tap tackle of former Munster man Francis Saili. Only Matt Faddes was outside Stockdale and the Kiwi came onto the ball nearing the touchline but with Cooney on his inside shoulder. It took just one more pass to send the scrum-half scampering across the whitewash.
It had been Cooney whose strip tackle had given Ulster the initial scrum and the conversion of his own score would be the final act of the first-half. Not a try in-keeping with the 40 minutes that preceded it but perhaps it was always to take something that bit more cutting to break down a Quins side who lacked the weapons of a week ago but maintained their defensive edge.
Having scored all Ulster’s points, Cooney would save five more with a last-ditch tackle on Chisholm after a bulldozing Kunatani break, a knock on in the process from the Quins’ full-back allowing Ulster to escape with only a warning.
That would loom large only minutes later when, after Cuvabati needlessly took Stockdale out in the air, Ulster played off the subsequent maul. McCloskey’s grubber through held up for Luke Marshall who, while needing to hit the turf to to gather, was able to pop back up and over the whitewash before the defence converged upon him.
Cooney's second try on the hour mark was even more audacious than anything in his recent run, dropping the ball onto his foot after a Coetzee, gathering, stepping two Quins players and touching down before most in the ground had realised what he'd done.With three tries scored and twenty minutes to go, hopes of a first bonus-point in this year's competition were raised.
Quins would get the next try though, through Steffan Lewies after a lengthy TMO consultation and Ulster's next chance in the final quarter would be wasted by a crooked line-out throw.
Hooker Adam McBurney would make amends soon after however, reacting quickly to a loose dart from his opposite number that would launch an attack finished off by Matt Faddes in the corner. That most crucial of fourth scores would come only in the 77th minute but there was still time for one more, replacement prop Tom O'Toole crashing over in the final passage of play.
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