John Cooney’s time has come after provincial journey
Ulster player’s rise will liberate Schmidt’s thinking around scrumhalf and 10 positions
Ulster’s John Cooney: “If you’re happy in your environment then I think it makes a big difference on the pitch.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
The journey has taken him to three provinces. But John Cooney seems now to have arrived more than ever, his first three games in the Pro14 adding emphasis to Ulster’s early-season decision to sign him up for another three years. That looks like sound business from Ulster.
With Cooney’s elevation also comes a transformation in the way Irish coach Joe Schmidt might now look at his options for the international series of matches in November, and through to the Six Nations Championship next year.
Since Paddy Jackson was stood down by the IRFU in July 2017, there has been no front line international back up to Sexton by a player who regularly kicks points for his club.
With Munster scrumhalf Conor Murray still sidelined with a mystery shoulder or neck injury and blessed Joey Carbery building add-ons to his growing outhalf play with Munster, Cooney’s rise and rise will liberate Schmidt’s thinking around the scrumhalf and 10 positions. With Cooney’s proven and consistent kicking ability the combinations Schmidt can use have increased.
Cooney, who landed three first half penalties in South Africa at the weekend before being removed with a blood injury, has had an impressive, sangfroid-laden opening to the season and not unlike his closing of it several months ago. The Gonzaga and UCD student turned Ulster’s opening two matches in the Pro14 league, and in the process has built a body of work and a reputation as a reliable point-scorer when outcomes are hanging on it.
Against Scarlets in the opening match the already capped scrumhalf snatched Ulster’s victory with five penalties from seven. Those were Ulster’s only points of the match. Cooney’s winner came with 30 seconds to spare.
Last week he left it even later, the same boot again providing the late heroic cameo, on this occasion with the clock some two minutes into the red and at the end of a 10 minute phase where the lead changed hands three times.
It has actually worked out just as Cooney had planned it. He left Leinster, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss behind to play in Connacht, and left Connacht and Kieran Marmion for Ulster and to succeed. He’s not shy about saying it.
Direct and confident, Cooney’s ability to exploit openings to further his career have been sure-footed, and an encouragement to others, Jordi Murphy, Tadhg Beirne and Carbery, however reluctantly, cases in point.
The move over the summer of Billy Burns from England to Ulster was among other things to place kick, yet coach Dan McFarland has stuck with his scrumhalf. McFarland and Cooney would have briefly overlapped during their years in Connacht, McFarland at the time assistant coach.
From the Schmidt viewpoint it means that the issue of giving Carbery game time at international level is not such a headache if Cooney is the scrumhalf as he assumes kicking responsibility, a positive as Carbery further develops.
Murray has kicked with Sexton playing on several occasions. But he is not a consistent place-kicker for Munster, and his troubling injury, that has forced Munster to draft in former All Black Alby Mathewson, could yet rule him out of the November series of international matches.
At the Ulster Rugby Awards in May, the 28-year-old Cooney scooped three prizes. He took away the Ulster Player of the Year, the Ulster Rugby Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and the Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year awards.
Prior to Sunday’s match he was the league leader after two rounds in most passes (123), most conversions (8) and most points (35). That follows a trend from last season where he was the league’s top point scorer (160) with the most try assists (10) and most penalties (30).
“I definitely felt the pressure at the start,” he said a few months ago. “My first game I missed a few kicks, but I got to fit in with everyone. If you’re happy in your environment then I think it makes a big difference on the pitch. I know I need to do the same next season.”
He is doing the same, which will further add to the anxiety of scrumhalf Luke McGrath in Leinster, Marmion in Galway, and possibly Leinster scrumhalf Jamison Gibson Park, who will be Irish qualified next June.
Furthermore, Cooney’s feats have been all the more impressive as he was asked to fill the nine jersey following Ruan Pienaar’s forced departure last season.
“It’s a challenge, but I’m here for the challenge,” he said on arrival in 2017. “It’s obviously a big deal with him leaving, but I prefer to come into a place where a big name or player has been before because I like that challenge.”
Cooney might just be a player that responds positively to pressure and can thrive in the environment. It is seven weeks to Ireland’s match against Italy.