How Ulster are using 2015 Toulouse victory to inspire Racing success, reveals Cooney
Ulster v Racing 92, Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Four, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm
John Cooney takes us to a place often mentioned in passing but never really talked about in much detail.
This is strictly off the pitch stuff, where analysis is done and digested with a view to being as well armed with knowledge about the opposition as possible before going toe-to-toe with them.
It's where laptops with detailed video clips, Niall Malone's department, are closely scrutinised in the never-ending process that is probing for that edge when it comes to understanding the next opponents' strengths while, more importantly, being able to exploit their weaknesses.
And every team, even the star-laden and big-spending Racing 92, have their vulnerable side with clips being available of their not so consistent efforts in the Top 14 as well as the European season.
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Things have been working out pretty well so far when it comes to the Champions Cup which has seen them win four from four to sit at the summit of Pool Four.
It all means they are now just one victory away from qualifying and are believed to be intent on doing this in Belfast on Saturday by beating Ulster before then, presumably, hammering the Scarlets in Paris the following week.
So, quite the challenge for Dan McFarland and Ulster from a team who have made two of the last three European finals and lost out on both occasions.
But it's not just about Cooney et al firing up their laptops to unpick everything about Racing's nuances and plays as being in the right frame of mind is also part and parcel of preparing to play and win.
Psychology is also deployed as Cooney points out before getting down to all the fine detail.
"We were shown a picture of Ulster playing Toulouse (in the 2015-16 season, Ulster defeated them in the back-to-back rounds and started with a 38-0 drubbing of the French club in Belfast) which Dan (McFarland) showed us," said Cooney.
"Ulster started with huge tempo for the first 15 to 20 minutes, and then there's a picture where all the Toulouse players are bent over, all tired, while the Ulster players are standing up strong."
The message hasn't been lost on the squad; begin as you mean to go on by coming out strong and staying strong and, then, the result will come.
It didn't, of course, in Paris back in October when Racing won 44-12 at their all-singing and all-dancing La Defense Arena, but this is the Kingspan Stadium where Ulster always reckon they have an edge.
But back to the technology and, as Cooney explains, it's all about being hugely detailed in preparation to play and absorbing everything that can be gathered up in the quest to win.
"We've done our attention to detail and that's so important," said the Ulster scrum-half who returns for Saturday's crunch European tie after being rested for the less than memorable PRO14 trip to his home province of Leinster. "We kind of nearly know what step people have, left or right, or what side they kick off and stuff like that.
"We have all the snippets on the computer, so it is important (to know) that sometimes Finn Russell (Racing's out-half and Scotland international) might dummy late and stuff like that."
He has his own intense studying to do as well and has been closely observing the playing styles and preferences of Teddy Iribaren and France international Maxime Machenaud though it is, fairly typically with large French squads, not clear which of Racing's usual scrum-halves will be starting.
"Iribaren is a good ball player and likes to attack those blindsides, whereas Machenaud is a lot more physical so, either or, I'm going to have to really understand the way they both play. It's actually a huge squad effort," added the 28-year-old of the work done ahead of this game with Ulster, second in the pool and five behind Racing, seeking the win to keep them in with a shot of topping the group and potentially going on to win it, therefore guaranteeing quarter-final qualification for the first time since 2014.
"It's great to also see people who mightn't play every week looking at the plays too with, say, somebody on the computer to see what (No.8) Antoine Claassen does at certain moments."
Cooney detects an even greater hunger to work both on the training ground and off it which he puts down to not only more players being exposed to Joe Schmidt's forensic ways when in Ireland camp but, also, the grafting ethic which McFarland has brought with him since coming on board last summer.
"It probably trickles down from being with the Irish team where you seem to know every single player you're playing every week," he said. "There, they put emphasis on that and I think we've brought that in here.
"It's no coincidence that Ireland are up there as No.2 in the world.
"And Dan is mad into attention to detail and as in the leadership group, or the older lads, if you're seen to not know what you're meant to be doing, he will have a go at you.
"It's the same with the younger players, it's trickling down through the whole squad."
Regardless of all the preparation, once the actual game begins, nothing will be achieved without Ulster getting all their basic workload absolutely right.
"Yes, it is hugely important for us to start well and it's something we haven't done that well this season though we know that in the last 20 to 30 minutes we've been really powerful," said Cooney.
"Last year against La Rochelle (Ulster won 20-13 the last time a French club was in Belfast) we started with tempo and it's important we do all that again this week and try and move the point of contact and play those wide edges."
But more must be done, particularly with Ulster's defence which has shipped a bit of damage over the last two PRO14 defeats.
"We must defend well and get off the line in twos and threes and not just as individuals so we can make these reads and make these tackles as we understand exactly what they're going to do," Cooney stated, with nullifying Racing's off-loading, epitomised by the exceptional Leone Nakarawa and others, seeming to be the main aim on that front.
Cooney's goal-kicking could also prove key to this contest which is just another challenging approach he must follow prior to the game, never mind the pressure he might feel when placing the ball on the tee during the actual match.
"I try to do a lot of mental work on my goal-kicking. I'm a bit different in that I'm more on feel and if I kick and it feels good, I kick well," he explained.
"I try to pretend to myself that I'm feeling good and hope that works."
A good head space, despite all the detail, and a ruthless performance from the off will all be needed to complete the job.