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John Cooney: British and Irish Lions call is an ultimate ambition that powered me through lockdown frustrations

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John Cooney is determined to one day wear the red of the British and Irish Lions.

John Cooney is determined to one day wear the red of the British and Irish Lions.

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

John Cooney is determined to one day wear the red of the British and Irish Lions.

For as long as John Cooney can remember, he has always jotted down personal goals for himself.

They have ranged from aspirations for the season ahead or longer-term aims, such as making a Lions tour.

When Cooney first wrote the Lions in his little black book, it was back 2014 when he was preparing to play in a not-so-glamorous fixture for the Connacht Eagles against Germany.

At the time he figured it was the furthest goal imaginable, and while it would have been seen as impossible the picture has improved drastically in the time since.

Cooney has a few more goals to tick off his list, including earning his first Ireland start in a big Test, but such has been the level of his performances over the last couple of years, he isn't afraid to say that making next summer's Lions squad is very much one of his main aims over the coming months.

That the 30-year-old is comfortable enough to admit something that most other players in his situation shy away from is partly down to his mental approach, while confidence in his own ability means that he has never been afraid to aim big.

With the games coming thick and fast, starting against his former side Connacht on Sunday, Cooney knows that if he can hit the ground running with Ulster, he will continue to give Andy Farrell a selection headache ahead of Ireland's Six Nations return.

"I would be lying to say it wouldn't (be my goal)," Cooney says of his Lions ambitions. "It did (come into my thinking) during the lockdown.

"Those days where I struggled for the drive to do stuff and it looked like we wouldn't be playing for months. Sitting on a watt bike, it definitely did drive me and it is obviously the result of a lot of hard work.

"I have a lot of stuff to do and my mantra for the last three or four years was always to play well for Ulster and on the back of that (you never know what might happen).

"I remember my sister telling me that if I keep playing well then they (Ireland coaches) can't not look at me. There were times where I didn't make the November internationals or the Six Nations and I didn't make the World Cup, but I went back to the fact that I have to keep playing well so they can't overlook me.

"It's probably cliche but it is what has worked for me and what I do with Ulster will hopefully now come through with other teams."

Cooney has been such a revelation since joining Ulster three years ago that the locals haven't felt the loss of Ruan Pienaar anything like they thought they would. But with Cooney's scintillating form, comes an expectation to deliver every week.

"Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I don't feel the pressure coming back after playing well last season," the Dubliner admits.

"It obviously wasn't ideal timing for me in terms of my body. I never felt as good. I didn't have one niggle. It's just about going back to what I was doing last season.

"Everyone can go to training every day and get the most out of training, but it's what you're doing outside of that environment and that could be just enjoying your own space or learning.

"I have a big onus on learning from individuals and other athletes. I think there's just a blueprint with these people in how they do things successfully.

"Even now I get up before I start every day just to take a bit of time to myself. I do certain things that I do that kind of makes my day better and that will have an affect on my rugby.

"It's making sure I stay on top of things and that's probably something I've taken from this, probably to have a bit more me time and as happy as you are off the field that's going to resonate on the field."

Cooney is a big basketball fan and has taken a lot of mental cues from stars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

He found solace in Bryant's mantra of going back and retaking a shot you may have missed in a pressure situation, and doing so over and over again. Perhaps that is why Cooney has become such an assured goal-kicker, which makes him an even more attractive proposition for any coach.

"As I've got older I realise the effect that I have on the players around me and nobody wants to see your kicker with his head down as you're going into the second half of a game," he adds.

"It doesn't really put much confidence in the players around you and I knew I had to get rid of that because if I am in that position at the end of the game again and feeling crap, like I won't get it.

"Even myself when I was younger I was always trying to get riled up when I was in school and when I first came through. Maybe that's why I damaged my shoulder three times, trying to get riled up for a game. I've learned now that it is about being relaxed.

"I definitely go through the season hating rugby a couple of times a year, but I think that is quite normal so it is just staying on top of everything.

"I have learned through the years that it's just a massive part of my game."

Belfast Telegraph