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Ulster's new hero John Cooney determined to improve as he waits on Ireland inclusion

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Sometime next week, Ulster scrum-half John Cooney will be preparing himself for a long-haul flight to far-off places.

Whether it be Australia with the Ireland squad or Thailand for a holiday remains to be seen.

In his first season with the northern province, and filling the considerable boots of Ruan Pienaar, the Dublin native has been a revelation at Kingspan Stadium.

His performances in the nine jersey have been a constant in a season of flux, recently seeing him acknowledged as the Ulster Player of the Year, Ulster Supporters' Player of the Year and Ulster Writers' Player of the Year.

Having previously represented Leinster and Connacht, he seems to have found a home in Belfast and quickly been taken to the hearts of a fanbase that at times had precious little to cheer.

While the search for game time was a huge part of his move north, international motivations were to the fore as well.

He made his debut for the Ireland side on last summer's tour to the USA and Japan but has been unable to crack a matchday squad since, despite being called into numerous camps.

"I'm hopeful but I've been up and down and in a lot worse situations," he admitted of his potential inclusion for the three-Test series Down Under.

"I'm either off to Thailand next week or I'll be on that tour. Whatever happens happens, and reflecting and getting annoyed is not really going to do anything.

"I'm very happy with how the season has gone but I've said it before, to be honest I'll be happier about the times when it wasn't going well but I stuck with it and made a tough decision throughout my last three seasons.

"I'm proudest at not giving up when times were tough, so I'm happy with how the season has gone but next season is another one.

"Sport is fickle, and there's always another level, so I have to come back better next season."

Cooney was man of the match in Sunday's win over Ospreys, a game that belatedly secured the province's place in the Champions Cup next season.

Still dining at Europe's top table, he admitted the gravity of the situation was not lost on the playing group entering the play-off.

"It was huge," he said. "We need to be in the Champions Cup and it's massive for us.

"It's probably one of the most nervous times I've had all season. Sometimes it's probably a better thing. When you're playing a big game and you don't have any nerves you kind of get a bit scared.

"We really wanted to perform well and set a certain standard for the start of next season."

Their fifth game in a row without defeat, the province's last reverse came at the end of March away to Cardiff.

That performance represented something of a nadir in their season, at the time putting their hopes of making even last weekend's play-off into real jeopardy.

"I think we drew a line after the Cardiff game," reflected Cooney.

"It felt like it was just us against everyone at the time and now we've all come together, so I think since that Cardiff game we've really stood up.

"I think it's pretty energetic for next season and I think the confidence is really there.

"It takes a certain amount of time to get good habits and I think we're getting a lot of good habits so it should be really good.

"Talking to people over the last two or three seasons it seems like Ulster seem to struggle halfway through the season.

"We started well this season but, looking back at previous games, we just really need to relay the importance of those mid-games and games like the Dragons game where we drew, Zebre, these games where we know we need to take points.

"If you watch Leinster they're so efficient. They might not even always play that well but they always come out with points that they need, so I think next season we'll really relay that mid-season as a time to really attack it."

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