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You've got to laugh: John Cooney not worried by Scarlets kicking woes ahead of return fixture

Ulster v Scarlets, European Rugby Champions Cup, Kingspan Stadium, Tomorrow, 7.45pm

Tee time: John Cooney feels that Ulster are in a good place to push on in Europe and the PRO14
Tee time: John Cooney feels that Ulster are in a good place to push on in Europe and the PRO14

By Michael Sadlier

He had previously thought that the Galway Sportsground could hardly be trumped for difficulty when it came to trying to steer a ball between the posts in swirling winds and outright gales, but John Cooney has had to revise that opinion.

Last Friday night at Parc y Scarlets, the 28-year-old found himself thrown by place-kicking conditions that were largely beyond what he had previously experienced.

Even though he provided try assists at the Scarlets for Will Addison and Marcell Coetzee - the latter's close-range effort bringing up the bonus point - Cooney kicked only two shots from six attempts, with one hitting the post, and while watching other efforts sail wide he could only see the humour in it.

Of course, it was fine to chuckle, especially as Ulster went on to win which has put them in a strong position halfway through Pool Four, but Dan McFarland's second-placed squad must repeat the dose tomorrow evening when the Scarlets come to Kingspan Stadium with only pride to play for.

"I've played long enough in Galway (with Connacht), I played three years in that sort of weather," says Cooney.

"So it's something I'd like to think I'm quite good at. The first one I couldn't have guessed that it was going to go 10 metres (wide), while the last kick I was hoping the wind would take it but it just didn't.

"Sometimes you've just got to laugh as you can't do much about it."

Still, the inaccuracy hurt, and for a player who prides himself on kicking goals, he will badly want to, weather permitting, make amends tomorrow evening.

"I do realise that sometimes it (winning or losing) could come down to that one point," says Cooney, who landed the last-gasp penalty to beat the Scarlets in September's PRO14 opener in Belfast.

"There have been games when I've got those kicks and it's come to a point that we've just about won, but last weekend it (the place-kicking) just didn't happen."

The four-times capped Ireland scrum-half - he got his first start in last month's win over the USA - is also hard on himself if other glitches creep into his game, as he explains when illustrating how much the team collectively grafted to earn their first ever European victory at the Scarlets last Friday, just two weeks after getting turned over in West Wales in the Guinness PRO14.

"Everyone is working hard for each other and there were a few times where I got done by Jonathan Davies on the inside, and I think about 10 or 11 of our players rushed back and Eric (O'Sullivan) and Bestie (Rory Best) ended up being on the edge and defending really well.

"That's the type of effort we have for each other at the moment.

"As long as we keep performing like that and working hard for each other I think we'll be good in all these games," adds the Dubliner.

Ulster produced their most complete performance of the season at the Scarlets, with their discipline and accuracy in both defence and attack being notably good, with all their big names - as well as young and less well-known players such as O'Sullivan - also turning in big displays.

There is no guarantee that Ulster will do all this again - the visit to Northampton Saints in December 2012 being a case in point when Ulster then slipped up at home a week later - so the emphasis this week has been about staying on message and hopefully quickly identifying any potential encroachment of complacency.

"Dan showed us a lot of teams who have come away with big away wins and then come home and lost," Cooney adds.

"So we know that's a danger, especially with a team who are effectively out and can't do much more than throw the ball around.

"So we just have to play our own game."

And he is confident that Ulster will complete the job tomorrow.

"I think we've got a good collective atmosphere here," he states before recalling that the province also won last season's back-to-backs against Harlequins.

"In the snow last year we manned up, and I think that was one of our best away performances.

"Yeah, it was pretty similar (last Friday).

"For us, it's back to having that clarity and that team performance."

Cooney has also taken on more of a leadership role this season, a natural evolution as you mature as a player.

"Dealing with injuries over a few years I think I've developed a mental aspect to my game a lot more, and I think off the back of that just becoming more of a leader came into my game.

"I think as you get a bit older you understand rugby more and you try to help the younger lads."

The mantra for this week is already clear. Ulster must push on and finish the job. Ideally they would like more territory and possession than was the case in Llanelli, but just another victory will do.

"It makes a big difference when we're on the front foot and playing well," Cooney said.

"We were pretty clinical when we got into their half (last week).

"We kept coming away with points and it's pretty hard to play a team that does that."

It's even harder for the opposition if the kicks go over too. This time, Cooney intends to see more of the ball going between the posts.

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