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Jonathan Bradley: John Cooney has won the battle with Conor Murray and must be named as Ireland's Six Nations number nine

Friday evening's game at Kingspan Stadium should rubber-stamp John Cooney's spot as Ireland's new number nine, argues Jonathan Bradley.
Friday evening's game at Kingspan Stadium should rubber-stamp John Cooney's spot as Ireland's new number nine, argues Jonathan Bradley.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

With an expanded fixture list and the insertion of European rugby as the final stepping stone to the Test arena, the days of the interpros acting as pseudo Ireland trials can be seen as an anachronism in rugby's professional era, yet there was something of an old-school feel to the first derby of 2020.

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Positional sub-plots were aplenty as Munster came to Belfast to face Ulster but one particular head-to-head dominated the build-up.

So apparent was the backdrop of a looming Six Nations, Dan McFarland admitted there was little point in denying it was on the mind of his players, the talismanic John Cooney chief among them.

"You don't need to talk to a player who is vying for a national spot against someone else who is vying for a national spot," said McFarland broadly of head-to-head battles such as that between Cooney and Conor Murray. "That is right at the forefront of his mind anyway."

Since Ireland's meek exit from the World Cup quarter-finals back in October, and the pre-planned switch from Joe Schmidt to his defensive specialist Andy Farrell at the head of the coaching ticket, discussion has been dominated by regeneration or restarting, the crux of the debate centering on just how much change to a side only one year detached from their best ever season would constitute throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Perhaps no position better illustrates the two sides of that same coin than scrum-half. Cooney has gone from being arguably the form nine in Ireland, to the undisputed form scrum-half in European competition this season, his case for further international recognition now a subject of much discussion well beyond merely the confines of BT6. Standing in his way, though, remains Murray.

Chatter regarding the two-tour British and Irish Lion's demise has been somewhat exaggerated, his recent showings improved from the struggles of the disappointing 2019 Six Nations, and yet the reality remains that he hasn't hit the same dominant level of his peak since a 2018 injury.

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Prior to that he was right alongside Aaron Smith when it came to bonafide world-class nines. Now his position with Ireland has never felt more under threat.

Indeed, it seemed telling that Alby Mathewson became such a key figure at Thomond Park before his delayed departure earlier this year, regularly seeing out games that still hung in the balance.

In contrast, of course, Cooney's role has never been more central, nor his stock higher, with a string of match-winning performances regularly provided right on cue in a season that he began still in Belfast while things unravelled out in Japan.

Cut from Schmidt's World Cup panel before a warm-up game had even been played, defence was cited as a root cause for his omission while his relatively paltry return of eight caps over two impressive provincial seasons always told that the Kiwi was unwilling to give the man he once worked with as a youngster at Leinster any length of a leash at Test level.

Bath, Clermont, Harlequins and now Munster can all bear testament to just how different a player he is today from those earliest days at the RDS and there was little doubt that Friday night's game was another opportunity seized to further tilt the balance of the battle in his favour when it would have been easy to let personal significance weigh too heavily on the mind.

Farrell will have a good deal more data to pore over than just one conveniently-timed head-to-head having spent years watching both in training, while gameplan must also be taken into account, but on the surface the bonus-point win for Ulster was the past few months in microcosm when it came to the pair's contrasting fortunes.

While the Munsterman was handed plenty of opportunities to showcase a key strength of his game - box-kicking early and often although not always to measure - it was again the challenger rather than the champ who grabbed the headlines.

At 29 and having circumnavigated a winding route to his current lofty position, the Dublin native is no long-term bet yet it is rare for him to leave the field now without his fingerprints having been all over his side's best passages.

There is an argument that the Ulster favourite is held to a less exacting standard - he has been the first to admit that even his much heralded recent performances have contained their looser moments - but his game-turning moments are too frequent to be ignored. 

He provided another on Friday evening. While it seemed long enough before to have been part of a different game when all was said and done, Munster had taken the lead while winning the early battles at the set-piece against an opposition pack bereft of Marcell Coetzee.

As has been the case with eye-catching regularity over the past two months, when Dan McFarland's men required a shift in momentum, it was Cooney who obliged, his step inside of Keith Earls to score again making the difficult look straightforward. On a run of six tries in his past seven games, there was surely not a soul in a sold-out Kingspan Stadium who doubted he would deliver again and so it proved. It gave Ulster a first lead and one which would they wouldn't relinquish.

In contrast, Murray's latter involvements would again raise accusations of ponderous work at the base of the ruck, never more so than when, on the 15th phase of an all too rare second-half attack, a telegraphed pass to Gavin Coombes was so delayed that Marty Moore had little trouble forcing the knock-on and a key turnover. Then only 14-points down, a try would have changed the complexion of the game entirely. Instead, it never felt that close again.

Sliding doors.

No side in international rugby is picked solely on recent form, to do so sure to rob any unit of its continuity and ignore the peaks and troughs natural in high-end sport.

There comes a time, though, when a player's candidacy to succeed even the most accomplished of incumbents becomes just too strong to be ignored. 

For Cooney, such a moment has surely arrived. A bold call for Farrell and one that would offer a continuity candidate a clean break from what has gone before, but most importantly it can now be considered one that simply gives Ireland a better chance of short-term success.

January 28, the day when Farrell names his first ever Ireland side to face Scotland at the end of the same week, must see Cooney named at nine.

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