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John Cooney and Kieran Marmion enemies for 80 minutes

Irish question is an intriguing back story to Pro14 clash between Connacht and Ulster

Connacht’s John Cooney celebrates his try with Kieran Marmion last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

John Cooney was asked in August, at the beginning of his first Ulster season, about his aspirations for becoming an Ireland scrumhalf. Were they realistic?

The question arrived to the backdrop footage of a tearful Springbok, Ruan Pienaar, legendary status earned and approved, holding one of his children and waving to the Ulster crowd for the last time, a reluctant move to Montpellier on his horizon.

“Obviously it’s a mountain to climb with Conor (Murray), Kieran (Marmion) and Luke McGrath. But competition breeds success, so yeah it’s my main goal really,” answered the new Ulster scrumhalf.

Cooney will get his first chance to see how far along that road he has travelled towards eking out a place in Joe Schmidt’s thinking. A summer tour with Ireland to USA and Japan under his belt has already alerted the Irish coach.

But this weekend will be a first opportunity to face Marmion across a scrum.

History is with Ulster in Belfast. But during the summer tour Cooney was unabashed. Making the move from Galway to Belfast was purely ambition driven. From understudy to Marmion in Connacht, the Gonzaga College educated Cooney has stepped into Pienaar’s boots and gloves off, will go head-to-head with his old teammate.


“I think it was a bit of a no-brainer,” said Cooney of his move to Belfast. “Kieran is a great rugby player and I just saw when Ruan was leaving that it was an opportunity.”

Marmion is not about to roll over. The most digestible Pro14 statistic tossed out on Thursday was that the Wales-born understudy to Murray, has made more passes than any other player so far this season with 405.

It shows that Marmion keeps busy, is quick to breakdowns and that Connacht play with the ball. But tonight may show just which of them can hold influence and catch the eye of Joe Schmidt as the November series of international matches creeps closer.

Outside the outcome of the derby game, in Ulster Cooney will be compared to Pienaar. In Connacht he will be compared to Marmion and Schmidt will be comparing them both to Murray and McGrath and each other.

Cooney has had his share of injuries and shoulder surgery three times over the years has staggered the career progress of the 27-year-old. Last season he dislocated it. That was six months. It has not deterred him.

The move from Connact to Ulster was not an easy one for Cooney and a measure of his drive.

“Yeah, it is a difficult thing to do but for me it was just an opportunity,” he said. “I know people didn’t want to influence my decision ‘cos I loved Connacht - I loved everything about it. My mum’s from Sligo. I had a background there, but at the end of the day it’s head over heart.”

Let round one in that exchange begin.