Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby Ulster

'He's basically my counsellor': John Cooney reveals darker side of a kicker's mentality while his on-pitch consistency continues for Ulster

Milestone man: John Cooney relaxes after media duties at Kingspan Stadium
Milestone man: John Cooney relaxes after media duties at Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

It all looks to be such a mechanically-driven process - essentially set up, aim and fire - that you can forget that there is another altogether darker side to kicking the ball for position or points.

Rugby round up Newsletter

Game previews, plus expert insights and exclusive commentary from the Belfast Telegraph sports team.

The bit when it doesn't work, and not being able to get the ball to either sail between the posts or land in a specified part of the pitch, can happen to the best, prompting mental doubts as well as nervy tweaks to routines.

A case in point is John Cooney. Last weekend the Guinness PRO14's top points scorer nailed all of his five shots at goal, his 13 points keeping Ulster's stuttering display at least ticking over on the scoreboard to beat Cardiff Blues, and he produced some on-the-money high kicks to be chased.

At the end, he even walked away with the man of the match award for another useful evening's work.

But all had been anything but well in the run-up. A different Cooney was at large then.

As the player who will win his 50th Ulster cap tonight when sprung from the bench against Zebre explains, he wasn't in a great place last week before show time at Kingspan Stadium.

"It's funny, I talk to Dan Soper (Ulster skills coach) and he's basically like my counsellor during the week," Cooney revealed, just in case you thought he was never beset by self-doubt or just poor form.

"And that's because some days you can have awful days.

"In the warm-up (against Cardiff Blues) I couldn't kick for my life, and even goal-kicking on the Thursday, I couldn't get any of them."

Not an easy place to be, but for all the help available there is only one person who can ultimately banish the yips, and that is Cooney himself just getting the better of the situation.

Then again, maybe it's a good thing as well to be so off in the lead-in and suddenly find that, when it really matters, he can send the ball right between the uprights or falling on target for kick-chasers to challenge.

That's how it all unfolded a week ago.

"It's interesting how during the week you can be rubbish and can't do any of it and then come game time it's like your concentration…" he said, before switching focus to another theme.

"Or maybe it's just that I get so worried I have done so badly that I feel I just have to get my act together.

"A good kick, a good kick-chase makes a difference. It's the same with a bad kick, which then allows a good kick-chase to turn a bad kick into a good one.

"What we have at the minute are wingers who chase hard. I thought Louis Ludik was brilliant in some of our kick-chases (against Cardiff)."

As long as it goes right when required tonight - hopefully the game will be won by the time he comes on - all will remain well, even if Cooney more than hints that some of his tactical kicking last week was rescued by his hard-working wingers.

The moral of the tale is that Cooney, and all kickers, must constantly edge their way along a very fine line between success and failure.

In terms of points scored, though, he is having a pretty good season so far. Cooney is the PRO14's leading scorer and has currently racked up a total of 48 points from two tries, 13 conversions and four penalties.

Even though he is just three points ahead of nearest challenger Ruan Pienaar - the man he replaced at Ulster back in summer 2017 amid much rancour over the IRFU blocking the South African's wish to stay on - this isn't something which exercises Cooney as he has another matter to deal with regarding his own haul.

"The main reason I care about it is that I have a bet on again with Jack Carty (of Connacht)," he said over their personal duel, which Cooney lost last season when Carty was the league's top points scorer with 157.

"I got a head start with him at the World Cup, so I told him the other day he has a bit of catching up to do."

This then leads to addressing Cooney's own deep disappointment at being cut from the Ireland squad which again failed to make an impression at a World Cup.

As usual, he doesn't avoid the subject matter.

"Like anything, there's two sides to it," he said. "I was very disappointed not to make it but it's not going to get me too far if I'm sitting at home sulking or feeling sorry for myself.

"I enjoy the environment here and it was nice to get home and just be where I'm appreciated or liked. I was annoyed, but happy to be home."

This home is where it's at.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph