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'He always had it in him': How John Cooney's mental strength drove Dubliner to Ulster success


Ups and downs: John Cooney shows his delight after bagging a try for Ulster, but he is yet to make headway with Ireland
Ups and downs: John Cooney shows his delight after bagging a try for Ulster, but he is yet to make headway with Ireland
John Cooney is yet to make headway with Ireland
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The game against Bath was an early afternoon kick-off but the sun was setting by the time John Cooney left The Rec.

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Once the team bus ferried those heading straight back to Belfast towards Bristol Airport, the team's star scrum-half could be found in a marquee underneath the ageing stands of the picturesque Premiership ground.

A dozen or so friends who'd made the trip to see him kick the game-winning penalty in the 71st minute awaited but before that there was no fan request for a selfie or a chat that went unanswered.

If there was a hint of self-interest, you might be reminded of a politician working the room and as Northern Ireland heads to the polls again next week you have to think the 29-year-old would surely be in with a good chance standing in east Belfast.

Put in what once seemed an invidious position when asked to fill the void left by Ruan Pienaar's enforced departure - as blocked attempts to bring the South African back a year later show, there was the belief at Kingspan that there was room for both - the former Leinster and Connacht man's unrivalled popularity among the Ulster faithful remains a remarkable story.

From the moment car trouble left him late for his first meeting with then director of rugby Les Kiss to his recent match-winning turns in Heineken Cup games against both Bath and Clermont, the career arc of a man who became a regular provincial starter only at the age of 26 has been one of perseverance rewarded.

"I always knew he had that in him," said Jordi Murphy, Cooney's fellow Dubliner who has known him since they were teens.

"I'd played some under-age stuff with him and he was fantastic, (it's just) at Leinster he was stuck in a pecking order behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss.

"He went to Connacht and Kieran Marmion is there, and he has been fantastic for them in the last few years, so he never really got that run of games and form he wanted.

"He picked up a couple of knocks over the years. Coming up here has been brilliant for him, he has established himself as No.1 and has been injury-free for the last few years.

"That just shows that a bit of form and continuity can really help anyone and for him it definitely has done."

His head coach Dan McFarland, who was forwards coach in Connacht during Cooney's spell in Galway, believes that an appreciative audience has been an important factor.

"John always had the equipment, the skill-set was always there," said McFarland, echoing Murphy.

"He's obviously improved. He's improved his passing, his kicking and decision-making.

"I wonder whether for him it was just the opportunity to come and show what he could do and do really well at an audience that appreciated that.

"He has certainly come out of himself and he's able to produce those big moments."

With his earliest Ulster performances seeing him win games late from the tee, and his most recent boasting three tries in the last three, few in the game have had more of those moments in recent years - but the sailing hasn't all been plain.

Beloved in Ulster, national appreciation still remains somewhat elusive. The form nine in Ireland for large chunks of the past two seasons, minutes in green remain sparse and he was bizarrely cut from the World Cup training panel before the warm-up games even began. Barely pausing for breath between the snub and resuming his pre-season at Kingspan, as a huge believer in mental preparation and training of the mind he has looked to turn the negative into a positive for this campaign.

"Not to even get a game (for Ireland) was disappointing but if I sit at home feeling sorry for myself it is not going to get me anywhere and I knew it's how I respond," he reflected.

"I read a lot of books and one was the Obstacle is the Way (by Ryan Holiday) and it talked about how you respond to things that happen to you. At the end of the day it's your life and if you react in a way that doesn't help you it's an important ethos on the way to live.

"For me it was just to get back into an environment I enjoy and to come into players that I love and management staff that I love as well.

"For someone like Dan to be as personable as he is with you as a player I have a good connection with him, he understood I was disappointed but he drives you hard everyday.

"It's an environment I enjoy and in a weird way nearly happy to be back because I really like it. I just put my head down and went back to work.

"I have been training since June, I feel like I'm half way through the season at the moment and I feel fresh.

"Physically I felt great coming back from that pre-season with Ireland and there was a big emphasis on weights and speed. I felt good in the first few games and now I have my fitness throughout the game and I'm enjoying my rugby."

It was while the gaze of most rugby fans was focused on events in Japan that he hit his first Ulster milestone, one he didn't manage at neither Leinster or Connacht.

In the modern game of 30-plus fixture seasons, there can be a certain cynicism around the achievement of 50 provincial caps when compared to the tallies of past decades but it was a mark that, after his itinerant professional existence, genuinely seemed to hold significance for Cooney.

"One of my goals was to stay injury-free and get a good run," he said. "I think I'm now up to 54 so for me to get that many games in a short space of time means a lot and that consistency is a huge thing for me as well."

Cap No.55 will come against Harlequins at Kingspan tomorrow (3.15pm kick-off) with Ulster's two-from-two start putting them in an early pole position for a Heineken Cup quarter-final return.

With eight points from victories over Bath and Clermont, wins in the festive back-to-backs would see them remain in the box seat beyond Christmas. Having made their return to the quarters last year, it is the memory of that painful result against Leinster providing an added spur to get back there once again.

"That was a game everyone enjoyed," Cooney remembered. "Being at the top flight of rugby in the Aviva with a fully packed stadium against Leinster, it was definitely one of those situations that everyone just loved.

"Even talking to someone like Marcell Coetzee, that gave him the fire to go back and play for South Africa because he wanted to be a part of those Test match games and it definitely felt like a Test match.

"It felt like we belonged there and it was one of those bittersweet performances where we performed really well and didn't get the win. It was good to get the taste for that again and it's definitely something driving us in these games. Everyone wants to get back to that quarter-final and I think that one drove us on a lot even in pre-season as well."

Drive, you gather, is not something Cooney lacks.

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