John Cooney: Applying the laws of attraction to up his game
The scrum-half has had his injury troubles, but perseverance and self-belief may prevail
John Cooney at the Ireland Rugby Captain’s Run at Murrayfield in Scotland on February 8th. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
John Cooney can be framed as the epitome of perseverance.
It’s August 2016 and Ulster is aflame. The DUP are complaining to IRFU chief David Nucifora about refusing to renew the contract of Ruan Pienaar.
The Ravenhill faithful know next to nothing about Cooney. The Dubliner is also in the dark having heard about Pienaar’s forced exit from Belfast on the radio while driving to training at the Sportsground.
Slowly the penny dropped that this reserve Connacht scrumhalf was being measured to fill the multi-decorated Springbok’s boots. Uproar continued, with nobody clocking Cooney as a goal-kicker.
Bracketed as a journeyman with a troubling injury profile, including three shoulder surgeries, in any other generation the Irish system would have discarded him.
Understandably, Cooney had to convince Ulster of his worth. His drive north to meet Les Kiss and Bryn Cunningham was halted by a puncture. Not to worry – the Applegreen, on the M1 just after Castlebellingham, was visible in the distance.
“I couldn’t believe it. I looked up, saw the petrol station, so I was able to get there.”
The nightmare was only just beginning.
“When I went to change it, the nut-key broke so I couldn’t even change the tyre.”
Enter Aonghus Cody.
“My best friend came [from Dublin], picked me up and drove me all the way to Belfast for the interview so I could meet Les Kiss.
“I was four hours late but I think he was pretty happy I still got there. Les was there, ‘No, just go home’ and I said ‘I will come and meet you’.
“The next day they offered me a contract so it worked out well.”
Cooney believes in the law of attraction. He has sat with a psychologist to cement his resolve as a goal-kicker and envisages wearing the green jersey – of Ireland not Gonzaga College – but at that stranded moment during the 2016/17 season he would be forgiven for accepting this rugby life might not be for him.
“I don’t know. It goes back to self-confidence and belief in people around you.
“I think if [Ulster] believed I have a best friend who would skip work and drive all the way up to Belfast for me, you are a decent lad.”
Cody gets mentioned in a week Ireland face Italy in Rome as his 28-year-old pal remains in the thick of his first Six Nations campaign.
“He wants to be my agent now.”
Cooney repeatedly mentions the support of friends and family. He informed the journalists in Carton House that his father is of their tribe. John Cooney senior was religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times and the Irish Independent; he also wrote a fascinating book about John Charles McQuaid.
I think it goes back to training your brain and the law of attraction – what you put out to the world comes back
“Yeah, it was very important that my family always had faith in me. When times got tough they were the people that got me through it. My best friends saw my ups and downs so I always thought, if I was to give up it would have a knock-on effect on them and other people around me.”
Cooney sounds like the steely character he was forced to become in order to survive a rugby career that teetered on the brink of oblivion.
This season he was added to Ulster’s leadership group.
“I think it goes back to training your brain and the law of attraction – what you put out to the world comes back. I knew if I put myself under pressure and put it out there that this is what I wanted to do, I knew it would could back to me. Even when I went up [to Ulster], I was like, yeah, this pressure is fine, I am going to do what I need to do. I found all last season it kept coming back my way. I don’t know if it’s a fad but it seemed to work for me.”
Cooney was always rated. He was unlucky. In school days there was Matt Healy – now a Connacht winger – and he watched Conor Murray’s rise from Healy’s understudy at Ireland under-20s into the stratosphere.
Injury to Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath, along with a string of excellent performances for Ulster, present Cooney and Murray as the current Ireland scrumhalves. This remains an understudy-to-master-craftsman relationship, but could quite profitably be transformed into a starter-finisher duo come the World Cup.
Cooney has envisaged that scenario, perhaps even playing in Yokohama on November 2nd. We also presume Schmidt and others see his specific set of skills as invaluable in Japan.
“You’d be lying to say you don’t think about it. I don’t really play 10 but I can cover it if needs be. I didn’t start kicking until three years ago so it’s something I did adapt. I always thought I could kick so I probably should have done it sooner. You never know what’s going to happen, there are several good scrumhalves, Jamison Gibson-Park will be eligible as well, but competition drives performance.”
Perseverance comes from preparing as if he’s already in possession of the nine jersey.
“It helped a lot, going in and holding myself to the standards of an international when I was nowhere near that. It made a big difference.”