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Cooney's class wins it again for Ulster

John Cooney makes a break
John Cooney makes a break
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Another European nail-bitter and another match-winning intervention from Ulster's John Cooney.

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Having won man-of-the-match after his late penalty sealed the win against Bath a week ago, the province's scrum-half again provided the game's telling moment against Clermont back in Belfast, his sublime chip and gather ultimately securing victory in a game that finished 18-13 in favour of the hosts.

Coming just after the hour mark, Cooney broke to the blindside before delicately lofting the ball over Aliverti Raka and deftly dribbling the ball to the verge of the whitewash.

A boyhood Liverpool fan who grew up idolising Michael Owen, it was the second week in succession when his footballing skills were required, his opening try at The Rec also the product of some perfectly measured touches from the boot as he broke forward into space.

"Interestingly John said in the changing room afterwards there that he has practiced that exact move breaking blind, chipping the fullback and scoring," revealed head coach Dan McFarland after the victory that sees the province sit top of Pool 3 after the first fortnight of Heineken Cup action.

"Now if anybody knows John that is exactly the kind of thing he would do. He has been practising it for years and never done it in a game, so he pulls it out the bag in a Champions Cup game.

"I was sat in the (coaching) box when he went down on the blindside on his own and there was a big shout of 'no', followed by a big shout of 'yes!'

"John Cooney has got lots of tricks in his bag, he is an incredibly skillful player and it was a great bit of play from him."

While he was ably assisted once again by a hard-working pack in awful conditions- Marcell Coetzee was peerless among the forwards on show while Jordi Murphy, Alan O'Connor, Marty Moore and Iain Henderson all provided big moments - it proved to be another night of headlines for the Ulster number nine.

Few could ever have predicted his move north to replace Ruan Pienaar in the summer of 2017 would go so well, the 29-year-old's popularity unrivalled at Kingspan Stadium after his string of match-winning moments for the side that are on track for a second Champions Cup quarter-final in as many seasons after a five-year absence from the knock-out stages of this competition.

"You know you do have to take your cap off to Coons," added McFarland, although rejecting the description of the former Connacht and Leinster man as his side's talisman.

"He produces some magic moments for us. I have not been surprised. I knew John when I was in Connacht, I coached when he was in Connacht, and he has always been a really talented footballer.

"(But I) would not use the word the talisman, I think we have a lot of talismen, one of the biggest things that makes me so proud to hear is that the desire of everybody to carry the weight of what we have to do.

"I talk about the collective pressure in defence, everybody takes credit for that and not just the people that play on the weekend, it is the guys who practice during the week because it is not possible to produce that kind of thing on the weekend if you are not practicing at that level.

"You have to have a level of effort and intensity of competitiveness to be able to do that at the weekend."

Ulster are back in PRO14 action next week when a much-changed side are expected to take on Scarlets in Belfast but there is just that one week break before their quest for the last eight in Europe resumes with the traditional festive back-to-backs bringing a home-and-away double against English side Harlequins.

Billy Burns will be a doubt for the key clashes having eventually succumbed to a tight hamstring against Clermont.

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