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How recent success has been five years in the making for Ulster star John Cooney

Harlequins 10 Ulster 34

Form player: John Cooney goes over for a try against Harlequins
Form player: John Cooney goes over for a try against Harlequins
Ulster players celebrate
Luke Marshall
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Tempting as it is to paint John Cooney's incredible run as a reaction to his World Cup snub, the man himself knows it takes years of work to become something of an overnight sensation.

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Since being discarded by Joe Schmidt from Ireland's World Cup panel before a ball had been kicked, he stands today having made a compelling case to not just be involved in the Six Nations but to oust two-time British and Irish Lion Conor Murray from the nine jersey.

For all Leinster's collective strength, no player in Ireland is in better individual form than the 29-year-old.

His latest heroics came against Harlequins in London on Friday night with a pair of scores and one crucial try-saving tackle as the northern province took one giant step towards the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The four from four start in Europe this season has been remarkable in the consistency of the game-winner. In each win, it has been Cooney providing the Friday night finishing off a brilliant length-of-the-field move just before the half that swung the game in his side's favour when it looked for all the world they'd be heading for the sheds at 3-3.

For Cooney, there's is nothing more to it than hard work and a considered mental approach.

"I try to attack each day," he said. "I see people meandering through days and it's something I try to work hard at.

"The hardest I've worked was in Connacht five years ago when I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. Sometimes you just don't see the fruits of your labour until years later. I'm still just trying to work hard but really the hardest I've worked was five years ago.

"I think now it's just consistency of action. I've always worked hard and tied into the mental approach through Dan (McFarland), the psychology.

"I've gotten a lot better at it and it's something I practice a lot. People forget you might have niggles - I've a foot niggle at the minute - but I'm going to the mind gym as Joe (Schmidt) calls it and working on the mental aspect of kicking kicks when I can't (physically) kick, and that's a point of difference when I look around other people."

If his first score was the pick of the bunch, joining his fine effort against Clermont in the discussion for try of the pool stages, then the second was indicative of his past month.

With the ball squirting from a ruck he displayed yet more footballing skills when reading the situation quicker than those around him before finishing with a fine step.

While stressing the luck required for such a situation to present itself, there remains a sense that Cooney has become increasingly adept at sensing opportunities before they present themselves.

"Darren Cave always used to talk about, the older you get the more you're seeing things you've seen before and I find that the more I see it in training, the more it opens up in games.

"I think again it just becomes second nature. When you're doing things and training, and things pop up your way, I'm probably getting quite lucky but it just goes back to work.

"Things have just been coming my way and some of them go back to football.

"I love football. Dan probably gets annoyed when I'm kicking a ball in the gym but it's just something I love and it's coming through in the games.

"I am just enjoying it. I'm obviously making a lot of mistakes too but it ended up well in the end."

Five tries in his last five is an unprecedented personal run, the up-tick in his scoring form coming after a pre-season challenge from the province's attack coach Dwayne Peel.

"Peely in the summer said he wanted more from us in terms of tries rather than just support lines, to have more of a crack ourselves," he said. "That got into my head and in the summer I worked on that and wanted to try to get more tries."

Another summer instruction came to the fore on Friday night, too.

Told that a part of the reasoning for his Irish omission was down to perceived defensive frailties, Cooney made telling contributions without the ball.

His first score was preceded by him getting a hand in to dislodge the ball from Cadan Murley. In the second-half, he did brilliantly to chase down Ross Chisholm when Quins briefly threatened to level the scores once again. Soon after, Luke Marshall's score put Ulster in complete control.

"For me that's probably more coming off the back of not making the World Cup squad, one of the things that was highlighted was that I had to keep working defensively so to come out with moments like that is probably more important," Cooney said..

"The way we train at the moment, Dan pushes us to be fit and get the ball away as quick as possible. I'm coming out of games feeling really fresh and feel like I can play every week."

Andy Farrell's first Ireland get- together will come at the end of this week with Cooney sure to be involved when the new head coach assembles the troops some six weeks before the Six Nations.

Between now and that meeting with Scotland at the Aviva in the first weekend of February, there is sure to be plenty more written about his prospects of what would be just a second Test start.

Already Cooney's mother has been sending him plenty of the positive reports, any scrapbook she may be keeping herself now is surely overflowing with clippings of his recent exploits.

"I've never been the type to get hype, it's always been hard work," he said of dealing with the attention.

"I'm very responsive to other athletes and Kobe Bryant talks about mental toughness being an even keel, never too high, never too low.

"I think I backed it up this week because I didn't want things to go to my head. I wanted to go out and perform as I knew that I could and that's what I want to do each week."

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