Deflated. Frustrated. Disappointed.
John Cooney is pretty blunt when summing up his feelings about his international career to date — and his prospects in green going forward. There was a time, after the 2019 World Cup and before the 2020 Six Nations, when the Ulster No.9 looked to be the ideal antidote to Ireland’s stagnant attack.
Cooney entered that spring’s tournament in the form of his life after tearing up the Champions Cup pool stages, and yet rookie Ireland head coach Andy Farrell was unmoved, opting to return to out-of-form veteran Conor Murray.
Fast forward 18 months and Murray is now the Lions captain while Cooney isn’t able to even pass a ball after suffering a neck injury that ruled him out of Ireland’s summer fixtures — which would have been a key window for reigniting his international prospects.
“I probably am deflated, to be honest,” he said of his international chances. “It probably wouldn’t be as much of an ambition of mine anymore. I think my main goal now is to play well for Ulster and be a world-class scrum-half.
“I want to be as good as I can be and if that’s good enough for Ireland, it is. If it’s not, it doesn’t really bother me as much anymore. I’m going to be as good as I can be.”
Cooney is always honest when reflecting on his setbacks — and there have been quite a few across a career that has now stretched into an 11th year.
He has been a revelation since making the move to Ulster ahead of the 2017-18 season, and yet when his form briefly deserted him upon rugby’s resumption last August, he found himself dropped to the bench for the province’s first PRO14 final since 2013 despite being the key man in the run to the decider.
“At the time, I did (feel let down by the coaches),” he said.
“I think it was an emotional reaction. I felt like I’d given so much. When Dan McFarland (Ulster coach) made the decision, he said he thought that was the best decision at the time. For a couple of weeks after, I probably victimised myself and felt really bad but on reflection, I didn’t want that anymore.
“I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me and I was able to let it go. Since the end of the season, Dan has highlighted how important I was to the team.”
The first Covid-19 lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for the former Leinster and Connacht scrum-half. Not only was Cooney playing man-of-the-match rugby week in, week out at club level, but he was also slated to start a key Six Nations game against France in Paris.
By the time the refixed game came around in the autumn of 2020, Cooney had to settle for just a place in the extended squad.
“It gets harder each time,” Cooney said. “I feel I’ve done enough and everything asked of me. Last season they called me in to train with them ahead of the match against France in a game that I was meant to start before lockdown, and I got all my work done, I encouraged everyone and I trained well.
“Then I got called in again and did everything they asked, so I feel like I can be proud of what I’ve done.
“I feel like every time I’ve played for Ireland, I’ve done well. I’ve never really had a poor performance.”