Ulster’s man of the moment John Cooney won’t believe the hype
Scrumhalf has the Midas touch, but he puts streak of good form down to hard work
Ulster’s John Cooney scores a try during their Heineken Champions Cup Round 4 match against Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop on Friday. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images
As Ulster made it four wins out of four in the Stoop on Friday night, when also registering a bonus point, yet again John Cooney was the heartbeat of their performance with a two-try, 19-point haul. Right now he’s not just the form scrumhalf in the country, but arguably the form player.
Everything he touches seems to turn to gold, but although it all seems so easy for him now, in truth little has come easy for the 29-year-old, who has demonstrated his ambition by doing the rounds from Leinster to Connacht to Ulster.
And so it is for this streak of good form he is currently enjoying.
“I think it’s just consistency of action and working hard. I’ve always worked hard and tied into the mental approach through Dan [McFarland], the psychology. Through injuries I’ve gotten a lot better and it’s something I practice a lot.
I didn’t want things to go to my head, I wanted to go out and perform as I knew that I could
“People forget you might have niggles, I’ve a foot niggle, but I’m going to the mind gym, as Joe [Schmidt] calls it, and working on the mental aspect of kicking kicks when I can’t kick, and that’s a point of difference when I look around other people. Day to day I try to attack each day and I see people meandering through days and it’s something I try to work hard at it.”
Having started just one of his nine caps to date, at home to the USA, Cooney is now a prime contender to start the opening Six Nations game at home to Scotland, but the hype will drift past him.
“I’ve never been the type to get hype, it’s always been hard work. I’m very responsive to other athletes, and Kobe Bryant talks about mental toughness being an even keel, never too high, never too low. For me, at the low points, it was trying to never be too low and stay on top of that. I think I backed it up this week because I didn’t want things to go to my head, I wanted to go out and perform as I knew that I could, so that’s what I want to do each week.”
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He attributes his recent run of five tries in five games in part to the demands placed on him by Ulster’s backs coach and former Wales scrumhalf Dwayne Peel.
“Peely in the summer said he wanted more from us in terms of tries, rather than just support lines, to have more of a crack ourselves. That got into my head and in the summer I worked on that and wanted to try to get more tries.
“It’s going back to training in the week and seeing different pictures. Darren Cave always used to talk about, the older you get the more you’re seeing things you’ve seen before and I find that the more I see it in training, the more it opens up in games. Things have just been coming my way and some of them go back to football. I love football. Dan probably gets annoyed when I’m kicking a ball in the gym, but it’s just something I love and it’s coming through in the games.”
As the man of the moment, Cooney is perhaps being judged differently from, say, the incumbent Irish scrum-half Conor Murray, the multi-capped Lion who has already set such high standards for himself in the past. Cooney admitted as much when saying: “I am enjoying it. I’m obviously making a lot of mistakes as well. A scrum-half touches the ball a lot and it ended up well in the end. The way we’re playing as a collective is huge.”
Even Dan McFalrand admitted Cooney’s match-winning exploits are becoming so regular that “it is one week after another”.
He is playing well, definitely. Do not worry – his head will not get too big, it is big enough already
“There was a great moment there and people will look at it, we have spent five minutes trying to work out how he managed to grubber the ball through off that ruck, and we cannot actually work out how he did it,” said McFalrand in reference to Cooney’s typically opportunistic second try.
“I asked him afterwards and he does not know how he did it. The bit that I loved was him chasing back to tackle Ross Chisholm. That was a pretty crucial stage in the game and for John to show us the pace to be able to do that, but also the energy, is fantastic, it is all symptomatic of what all the guys in the team would do.
“He is playing well, definitely. Do not worry – his head will not get too big, it is big enough already,” quipped the Ulster head coach.
Clermont’s predictable bonus point romp at home to Bath on Sunday sets up their clash at home to Ulster on January 11th as the pool decider, with the winners likely to have a home quarter-final and the losers to progress as runners-up and play away in the last eight.
“We have got two games, you top your group and you have a good chance of a home quarter-final, in order to get to that we have to get past a certain Clermont, in the Massif Central,” said McFarland with a knowing smile after the win over Harlequins.
“It is a brilliant place and something that everyone should experience, and we will look forward to that. In addition to that we will have a star-studded Bath team that visits us in the end. If you want to win your group we have to win both those games, it is as simple as that.”