John Cooney thriving on opportunity among the sons of Ulster

Ruan Pienaar’s departure proved to be key as scrumhalf made move to Belfast from Connacht

John Cooney at an Ireland training session at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

A book on John Charles McQuaid is where this John Cooney interview begins. Published in 1999, the Ruler of Catholic Ireland written by the Ulster scrumhalf's prolific journalist father, also named John Cooney, alleged the former Archbishop of Dublin was a paedophile.

This was before the Ferns Report (2005) and other revelations about systematic damage inflicted upon Irish society by the Catholic Church during McQuaid's reign, so the criticism visited upon Cooney senior was significant. Our research found only one voice, Fintan O'Toole, writing a supportive column.

“Death threats and everything,” says Cooney, sitting comfortably in Kaffe-o on the Ormeau road in Belfast last Tuesday afternoon.

Any truly successful journalist tends to swim against the tide. Not unlike his Terenure-raised son has done until, finally, age 28 becoming the established Ulster halfback. Scroll down for more rugby. “I was only eight but, yeah, it is a tough job with weird hours,” Cooney notes of his father’s profession. “He still wants Cardinal O’Connell to apologise for abusing him about what he wrote about John Charles McQuaid.”


Belated justification did follow? “I think so. He still has feelings towards some people who would have disagreed with him but it is nice when people talk about him, saying he was right because it was ballsy to put that information out there.

“He had a good influence on us. That’s why I was sent to Gonzaga – so I’d do well in school and college. Between him and my mum, they are very educated. Dad speaks several languages, Latin, French...”

How did a Scottish man become Religious Affairs correspondent for both The Irish Times and The Irish Independent? “I have it all here,” Cooney pulls up a career timeline that began in 1972 at The Glasgow Herald before a move to Brussels in 1982 as a European Correspondent. “That’s where he met my mum, she was working in the Department of Foreign Affairs.” Liguori Cooney hails from Sligo but the Connacht link was strong from the Cooney children holidaying in Mayo around the Humbert summer school.

We touch on more ancient history, as both parents’ career paths sent them north during the Troubles, before wandering towards this evening’s homecoming at the Aviva stadium.

“Belfast is home now,” Cooney corrects. “I have three years on my contract. I just bought a house. I love it here.”

Clearly interviewing a journalist's son, he squashes most follow-up questions. "Another weird connection [to Catholic Ireland] was my uncle Martin Sixsmith wrote the book Philomena, you know the movie?"

John Cooney in action for Ulster against Scarlets in Belfast. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The Oscar-nominated film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan about Philomena Lee's baby, born out of wedlock in the 1950s, and subsequent search in America to find her son after he had been sold by the nuns?

"Yeah. Martin is Dad's sister's husband. It was up for [four] Oscars." Coogan was nominated for best adapted screenplay. "Alan Partridge, yeah, it's a claim to fame. Martin wrote the book."

The Scottish background allows the conversation to dip into the Six Nations and what proved a special four minutes off the bench at Murrayfield.

“Yeah, Dad went over, which is unusual as he doesn’t go to many away matches. He was emotional. He had a stroke a few years back, that’s why he had to stop writing. He is very Scottish but he was happy. He went to the game with his uncles, who are from Glasgow. It was probably the most emotional I ever was for a game. It was pretty cool ’cause I wouldn’t see my uncles much and I gave my cousin my jersey after the game.”

The Six Nations didn’t go according to his ideal plans – he was replaced by Kieran Marmion in Cardiff – but he feels the initial impression Joe Schmidt formed from the 2011 version of John Cooney has been largely erased.

“I think I could have contributed a bit more but it is what it is, and I was happy with the minutes I did play. My drive was to increase the tempo when I came in and I think I did that.

“I’d like to think I got more credit in the bank with Joe. The World Cup squad will be decided in the summer. I think I have improved certain parts of my game in the Six Nations period.”

Like what?

“Just being more clear about plays. I’ve been laid back at times, trying to play off the cuff . . . ”

That’s the initial impression Schmidt had? “Maybe, but I’m a completely different player now, a completely different person.”

The public perception of him has been radically altered since joining Ulster last season. Despite coming off the bench in the 2012 Heineken Cup cake-walk over his current team, he never caught a genuine break in a blue jersey.

Especially when Schmidt took the Ireland job in 2013 and Matt O’Connor landed.

“He wanted me as third choice with Luke McGrath fourth choice, and he didn’t want me playing rugby in case there was an injury [to Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss] so I became a big gym monkey while Lukey got to play AIL.

John Cooney scores a try in Ireland’s Six Nations game against England at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“I began to lose interest. I remember playing two 90 minute SuperLeague games the week of a Leinster A game.”

Wait, the SuperLeague in UCD, the internal student soccer competition?

“Yeah, I couldn’t be bothered anymore. Feck that.”

How’d you go in SuperLeague? “Seven goals. I was always mad into football. Didn’t take up rugby until I was 12. I still am, I’ll play again when I retire. I played for Beechwood. Went for Home Farm trials but you couldn’t do that if you were playing rugby on Saturday.

“If I went to a better [rugby] school I never would have played rugby as I would have been on the Bs or Cs and just given up to play football. Luckily I was at Gonzaga.”

The Jesuit college in Ranelagh may prioritise nurturing of legal minds over sporting prowess but their rugby programme has grown in tandem with professionalism and their geographic proximity.

“Kev McLaughlin was my next door neighbour. We grew up in a cul de sac, Kev and my brother Francis were older so I was always in goal. I went into Gonzaga when Kev was in sixth year, and we both played for Leinster and Ireland. It’s a terrace house, so my garden was looking into his garden.

“It’s weird, that whole ‘Bounce’ theory. Our sisters were real sporty. We had a square with a park in the middle. Another neighbour got a scholarship to golf in America, a nephew of Kevin Moran the footballer. All in a little square in Terenure. A weird little corner from where me and Kev went down the exact same route.”

A serious prospect on entering the Leinster Academy, a year behind Conor Murray in Munster, he takes full responsibility for how everything has panned out.

“Rugby, for me, was never the be all and end all. I didn’t want to be a professional until I was 19, but I started making representative teams and saw a career path. I thought I was progressing well in that second year with Leinster but when Matt O’Connor came in I knew quite early on I would struggle. He rang me that summer, I was in Mayo funnily enough, and asked what I think about going on loan to Connacht.

“I remember saying it was a loan deal and that Leinster were still my team so what did he want me to develop? He just asked me when I was off. Okay, this lad doesn’t want me.

"I went to Connacht and couldn't get into the team. I was third choice behind Kieran Marmion and Ian Porter. My first game was in December against Zebre. I came on scored a try, made a try-saving tackle and after that I started getting into the team, but it took three months."

Talent doesn’t always matter.

"It was a wake-up call, nothing is going to be given to you." Cooney rejected an opportunity to return to Leinster. "We won the league the next season." He could easily have become a Galway native, like his partner Clare Parsons, but, without warning, David Nucifora made a seismic decision for Irish rugby. Cooney remembers where he was when Ruan Pienaar was forced out of Ulster.

“In my car outside The Huntsman when I heard the news on radio. Connacht were mad keen to keep me and I really liked it there but I saw an opportunity to be a starter.

"So I texted my agent. Ulster weren't as keen. Probably because of the [shoulder] injuries and they were hoping they could still keep Ruan. So that pissed me off. I wanted to be the starting scrumhalf. After meeting Les Kiss they offered me a contract the next day."

Cooney following Pienaar was initially framed like David Moyes coming after Alex Ferguson. How wrong that narrative proved. The Springbok was a pillar of the local Christian community. "God," Pienaar told a congregation of 1,000 devout followers at St Anne's Cathedral in January 2016, had guided him to Belfast, and that's why the world cup winning scrumhalf rejected a lucrative switch to Toulon.

“Being here gives me an enormous sense of purpose: I am not just here for rugby, I’m here to touch lives,” Pienaar continued. “I felt that the Lord had so much more to show me here and there’s so much more that I’ve got to do in Belfast.”

A different type of deity intervened. There was open revolt in Ulster with a DUP protest call to the IRFU but the decision was written on stone tablets. The South African joined Montpellier. Cooney would replace the preacher. The SuperLeague striker started winning matches Ulster deserved to lose.

“I always felt I could kick. Got my first 17 kicks in professional rugby so I decided to do it full time.”

With Paddy Jackson sent into exile and Billy Burns arriving from Gloucester with an unproven boot, Cooney grasped the responsibility.

"I enjoy the pressure. My sister [Sarah, a hockey international] sent me Golf is a Game of Confidence by Bob Rotella. I was reading it just before the Edinburgh game, that exact passage about not getting too nervous with a shot to win, as you can think about the countless people in your position before. Then I had a kick in the last minute to win the game. I smiled, I read this today and this is exactly what I have to do. I got it."

After Pienaar the IRFU banished other local heroes, Jackson and Stuart Olding, against the strongly worded wishes of both club and supporters. Cooney is not going to speak about the rape trial but he did tweet his displeasure about an article in the Sunday Independent questioning whether the Belfast rugby community understood how the rest of the island viewed the 2018 case which cast a shadow not only over Irish rugby, but society in general.

“It just annoyed me. My dad is a journalist and I just thought that was such crap journalism. I don’t know why anyone would pick that up. I wouldn’t normally bite on that sort of stuff and worded it in a way . . . but sometimes you got to call out these people.”

He rejects talk of a rebuilding Ulster squad, despite an unprecedented number of early retirements, including former captains Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble, and the mere suggestion of the silk route from Dublin to Ravenhill raises his ire.

“Leinster players in Connacht were always called Connacht players but the people from Leinster in the Ulster team are always called Dubliners. We are Ulster players. We are Ulster men. It’s annoying that nobody says that about players going to Connacht or Munster.

“We moved our lives up here for our careers. Rory [Best] said it last year, someone always comes in and takes their place. That’s the way it works in life, and in sport.

“Go anywhere with a bad attitude and you are not going to enjoy it.”

We relay conversations with former Leinster players. In summary, Ulster have no chance this evening. “It does piss me off when people say Leinster are going to walk it. We’ve nothing to lose.

“We need to start well and get after them . . . You get a sense or a feeling when a team is going to do something special. It happened in Galway in 2016. I’m starting to feel that with the Ulster team. It’s nice when you have seen it before, you have that understanding, you know what’s required, it’s something you can drive.”

Cooney could be seen as a journey man but he prefers being an Ulster man. That idea in itself represents a massive shift in attitude.

“I’ve already played more for Ulster than the other two teams. When I went to Connacht from Leinster a lot of people would have believed my career over. It was a huge moment because I had seen others go to Connacht and it was their career over. I know people thought that about me. In my head I was never done.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent