Frustrated Cooney to concentrate on his Ulster duties

Scrumhalf disappointed at the way he has been overlooked in the Ireland pecking order

John Cooney at the launch of the Tackle Your Feelings campaign video: “I want to be as good as I can be and if that’s good for Ireland then it is; if it’s not it doesn’t really bother me as much anymore.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Frustrated by his lack of opportunities in the Irish set-up, John Cooney has resigned himself to never playing for his country again and instead has vowed to henceforth focus his energies on Ulster.

Cooney won the last of his 11 caps as a 55th minute replacement in the defeat by England at Twickenham in February last year. Come the rearranged games against Italy and France, Cooney missed out to Jamison Gibson-Park and Kieran Marmion, since when the Ulster scrumhalf has also been usurped in the pecking order by Craig Casey.

“It’s actually getting harder with these selections because I feel like I’ve been playing really well for the last few years and I actually thought this season as a whole, for me, was nearly as good as the season before in terms of my leadership on the field and making players around me look good.”

Despite having the most assists in the league, a low point was being picked on the bench for the Guinness Pro14 final against Leinster last September.


"That hit me harder than the Ireland stuff. After what I'd felt I'd done that year I thought I deserved to play in that final. I did come on but I found it very difficult. After that, when it rains, it pours and I didn't make the Irish team."

While he lauded Dan McFarland for the many one-on-one conversations they had subsequently, Cooney remains confused as to his axing by Ireland.

"I feel like every time I've played for Ireland I've done well. I've never really had a poor performance. That [2020] Six Nations, I came on against Scotland and England and I thought I did well.

“Maybe sometimes it’s that resilience that when things are bad, I say: ‘Okay I’m going to get on with it’. Maybe sometimes coaches don’t feel sorry for me in that way whereas other players will be different, their head is down and they feel they deserve another chance.

“Whereas my kind of persona is: ‘Screw you I’m going to come back and show you what I can do’. I’m not too sure to be honest, it’s something I always thought about. But I seem to come out on the other side of these selections so maybe I need to show more of a sensitive side.”

In a video for the Zurich and Rugby Players’ Ireland Tackle Your Feelings campaign with his former Connacht half-back partner Jack Carty, Cooney speaks of the encouragement which the latter gave him, intimating this was not the case when he worked with Johnny Sexton at Leinster and Ireland.

“Potentially. When I first started playing with Leinster I did find it quite difficult, the way he spoke to me. We did play a bit with Ireland. I don’t know, I won’t really expand on that too much.

Positive attitude

“It’s not really the type of communication I enjoy as a rugby player. I prefer the positive attitude. No-one wants to make mistakes. It’s something I have learnt in how I communicate with other players. I want them to work hard, and if they don’t work hard, I’d be the first on them. We’re all there genuinely trying to be as good as we can, so I’d be a little bit more sensitive to that.”

He sounded deflated.

“Yeah, I probably am deflated to be honest. It gets harder each time and I feel I’ve done enough and I’ve done everything asked of me. Last season they called me in to train with them against France in a game that I was meant to start before lockdown and I got all my work done, I encouraged everyone and I trained well.

“Then I got called in again and did everything they asked of me, so I feel like I can be proud of what I’ve done ’cos everything that’s been asked of me for the last couple of years I’ve done it. I’ve never complained and I’ve worked incredibly hard.”

As for his ambitions of playing for Ireland next season?

“It probably wouldn’t be as much of an ambition of mine any more. I think my main goal now is to play well for Ulster and be a world-class scrumhalf.

“I want to be as good as I can be and if that’s good for Ireland then it is; if it’s not it doesn’t really bother me as much anymore. I’m going to be as good as I can be, be one of those best players in Europe that I think I can be.”

The link to the Tackle Your Feelings campaign video: more information on Tackle Your Feelings follow the Instagram account @tyf or visit the website which will share videos, updates on events and competitions.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times