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Comment: John Cooney's Ulster displays haven't got just reward but tough Ireland decisions have only begun for Schmidt

No go: John Cooney won’t be playing for Ireland at the World Cup in Japan
No go: John Cooney won’t be playing for Ireland at the World Cup in Japan
Finlay Bealham
Mike Haley
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

When asked on Saturday if he'd fancy picking his final World Cup squad this week a la Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt puffed out his cheeks and replied that it was not a task he'd relish this week, next week or any week.

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Tough decisions were coming and, ultimately, it was the head coach who would be the one dashing the dreams of his players. As Jones said on Monday, there's no such thing as a democracy when it comes to squad selections.

As it turned out, the axe was coming sooner rather than later, with three players, among them Ulster's John Cooney, left behind when the squad departed from Dublin Airport for a week of training in Portugal yesterday afternoon.

The loss of Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell before the warm-ups was seen as harsh on the outside but the duo were always long shots for the final 31.

The same goes for Munster man Mike Haley, who made his debut on Saturday but was a surprise inclusion from the get go, and Finlay Bealham, whose own chances took a serious dent the moment it was Andrew Porter who moved across the scrum from tight to loose against Italy on Saturday.

As such, Cooney can count himself as the first eye-catching omission from the travelling party.

On the face of it, the 29-year-old is a valuable World Cup commodity.

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As the game becomes more physical and the player welfare debate rages on, much has been made of the constraints of a 31-man panel. In that regard, Cooney is something of a human loophole.

He is a specialist nine who has professional experience at out-half, a two-for-one as it were. Add in the ability to kick for goal - 95 successful attempts from the tee in his two Guinness PRO14 seasons at Ulster - and the further strings to his bow seemed to make him a likely traveller.

Although only one of his eight caps had been from the start, that coming against the USA last November, he was notionally the man in possession of the back-up scrum-half jersey having appeared in limited minutes behind Conor Murray during the Six Nations while others were injured.

Their returns have seen him slip straight down the pecking order, though, with neither his versatility nor PRO14 form enough to see him avoid the cull.

While there have been murmurs that Schmidt was erring towards a repeat of 2015 when he brought three out-halves and two scrum-halves, with Ian Madigan supposedly the nine cover, it is possible that the injury sustained by Joey Carbery forced his hand and worked against Cooney. Out for four to six weeks, there is a race against time to get Carbery any rugby before Ireland take on Scotland in Yokohama to open their competition.

In what is often a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the added incentive to now bring either Jack Carty or Ross Byrne virtually eradicated the chances of there being a third scrum-half.

On a personal level, it's tough on a player who, while his own man, was an early poster boy for new IRFU policy.

A native of Dublin, his huge success on the field at Ulster, and crucially the wholehearted way he represents the place he now calls home, endorsed the not always popular practice of pushing for a greater fluidity between the provinces.

That will have counted little with Schmidt in this selection, as would anything that doesn't help Ireland towards World Cup glory, but it seems that here was another example of a player whose club performances didn't get just reward.

He may not be the last.

Nine more players must go before Japan with the pinch coming in the back-three and back-row sure to give Schmidt a few sleepless nights.

The tough decisions have only begun.

Belfast Telegraph


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