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I feel a much bigger part of things at Ulster than I did at Leinster: John Cooney

 

In hand: John Cooney in action for Ulster
In hand: John Cooney in action for Ulster
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Prior to today's eagerly-anticipated Champions Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Leinster, the only previous occasion when the sides took their inter-provincial rivalry onto the continental stage marked John Cooney's European debut.

The 2012 final in Twickenham saw the scrum-half come onto and then off the bench late in the 42-14 rout, picking up a winner's medal for his six minutes of action.

Just 22-years-old at the time, the Gonzaga product would leave his native province three seasons later for Connacht, taking a circuitous route back to the knockout stages of the northern hemisphere's flagship club competition where he now stands as one of Ulster's key men in their first quarter-final for five years.

"I didn't feel that much a part of it as I hadn't played much," he reflected after a final kicking session in the Aviva Stadium yesterday.

"I only played the final. It was brilliant and amazing to do so, but I definitely feel a much bigger part of this team.

"I've developed a lot since then. I've had three shoulder injuries since then, but I've taken the positives out of those setbacks and they've done me good. I think I've adapted how I play and I've improved as a person. I've come a long way."

Indeed, in what is a young team - 14 of the 23 are playing in their first European quarter-final - Cooney is key not just for his skill-set but his leadership. While not often seen as outwardly vocal, he has become a key voice in just his second season at Ulster.

"I would say I'm a leader," he said. "It's something I've adapted to. At 21, playing with Leinster I wouldn't have said I was. But over the years, I've developed my mind, worked a lot.

"It's something I always wanted to be, I always wanted to play in these games and I always found it difficult to be a spectator when I wasn't getting picked for them. I always envisaged myself in this position.

"It was something I always wanted, it's something I worked on and I think it is just training the brain to learn the characteristics. It's a lot about what you do day in, day out. Joe (Schmidt) always says you are what you do every day and it's important to set those examples and those standards."

As has been well documented ahead of this game, Cooney is just one of a large Leinster-born contingent who make up the squad that will take the field in Dublin this evening. Just under a third of Ulster's match-day panel were in the Leinster school system, a number that could swell even further next season with the possible arrival of Jack McGrath.

While many would downplay the link, Cooney admits that the thought of taking on the side who didn't give him the game time he felt he deserved is a further motivating factor ahead of taking the field.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't matter," he said. "It adds that extra bit of fire in the belly.

"When you're struggling, fatigued in a game, that's where you find that extra level.

"I've only played them a few times. I've played Connacht (more) and came out of those games battered.

"It does add that fire in the belly, even for the lads that are playing for Leinster, and I'm sure they'd say the same thing, but I think it's a positive thing in the energy you can provide.

"It's important to bring that into the team. It's a huge event, a packed Aviva that sold out in a few hours. Everyone wants to play these games, especially against another province.

"Everyone loves playing the best team in Europe. These opportunities just don't come around all the time."

While his opposite number today, Luke McGrath, is a few years younger, the pair were team-mates at the RDS, and indeed recently for Ireland. It seems sure that only one will travel to the World Cup, an added wrinkle in a game that is already well stocked with sub-plots.

"We would have got on really well and we still do," said Cooney.

"I still chat to him every now and again. When we are in camp, we always do a lot of passing and kicking together.

"He's a great lad and I get on really well with him but like anything, once you get on the field, we are all competitive individuals.

"It will be great to play against him. I haven't actually got to play against him in a long time.

"Last time I played in the final (with Connacht) against Leinster, I just gave him a shoulder.

"We're similar in some regards and different in others. Lukey is very combative. He is a brilliant defender and he is also very good at getting the ball away very quickly.

"That's stuff I like to think I do as well so we would be quite similar players."

A point of difference with Cooney is his goal-kicking, a skill which should allow him to complete a long-held goal in the Aviva Stadium today.

While he scored a try against England in the Six Nations earlier this season, he has not yet kicked any points at the home of Irish rugby.

"That was one of my goals in the Six Nations and I didn't get one," he said.

"Darren Cave is still slagging me that I didn't take the drop goal when I scored the try here (against England). I gave the ball to Johnny (Sexton) but I have practiced here and I have played here before with Lansdowne but back then I didn't take goal kicks so I have never had the chance to kick one here."

While his kicking for the posts will be important, it could be his probing efforts in behind that are more crucial to the outcome. Ulster seem set to rely on putting boot to ball with relative frequency but cannot be wayward with Jordan Larmour such a threat on the counter.

Leinster have selected the youngster ahead of the vastly experienced Rob Kearney, the two-time Lion having to make do with a place on the bench.

"If your kick chase isn't great, you can't be kicking long," Cooney warned. "You need to make them contestable. Judging on the run if you can find space, and if you can't it's not a good idea to kick to him.

"You have to adapt, make the decisions under pressure."

Match verdict: Ulster

With Johnny Sexton out, and Iain Henderson in, the two team announcements gave hope to the many Ulster fans set to descend on Dublin throughout the day.

The northern province have been duly respectful all week but seem to have a quiet confidence about them. If Ulster can make a good start and grab an early score, as they have done in a number of their big wins already this season, then all bets are off.

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