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'Saracens was brilliant. I went over to see how they engage as world class athletes'

Dublin defender Jonny Cooper paid a visit to English Premiership rugby side Saracens recently.

IT SAYS A lot about Jonny Cooper that in the weeks after Dublin’s latest All-Ireland victory, he flew over to England to spend time with the Saracens rugby squad. 

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 6.15.59 p.m. Jonny Cooper was speaking at the GAA Super Games Centre’s with Sky Sports National Blitz Day.

Every day is a school day, as they say. After a chance meeting at a speaking event with a Saracens coach, Cooper was afforded the opportunity to visit the Premiership rugby side and study how they operate.

“Saracens was brilliant,” the five-time All-Ireland winner says. “I went over, I’m just trying to learn. I’ve tonnes to develop on myself as a player and there’s a lot of information out there, there’s a lot of organisations, cultures etc that are there to hopefully learn from.

“I just went over to have a look and try to learn and see how they engage as world class athletes and it was a great experience.”

Cooper comes from a high performance environment in Dublin, but that doesn’t mean he’s not frequently looking to other sports for ways to improve his game. Just last month, he was a guest at a Leinster Rugby training session and spoke with various players and head coach Leo Cullen.

Leo Cullen and Jonny Cooper Leo Cullen and Cooper Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Max Deegan, Rhys Ruddock, Noel Reid and Jonny Cooper Leinster's Max Deegan, Rhys Ruddock and Noel Reid with Jonny Cooper in Donnybrook last month. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

He has picked up little nuggets from rugby, like how the direction of their fingertips can help steer a pass towards its target.

“When they’re throwing a pass they finish their fingertips towards the target, just little things that we could potentially use in the handpass in terms of making sure the ball is placed on the man where it should be.

“Just looking at anything that’s out there, be it videos or being lucky enough in the position to get to see some other athletes and sports. There’s a lot of value in that. In my point of view being open-minded to all the other sports out there there’s definitely a lot to learn.”

How did Mark McCall’s Saracens set-up compare then to the Jim Gavin regime in Dublin?

“A lot more similarities than differences I would say,” says Cooper. “In terms of what they do, they obviously do field sessions, gym sessions, skill sessions and tactically look at games.

“That’s all common in GAA circles but I guess the main difference would be the contact time they have. They’ve five, six, seven, eight hours a day to fill a lot of things somewhat at their own leisure, whereas in a GAA circle you may have training at 6pm or 7pm and then lads have to go home or travel different places so you don’t have as much time.

“They have a little more time to fill in terms of what they really want to do across the board, whereas we have less time.”

Cooper has admitted in the past he has “maybe a bit of OCD” when it comes to breaking down the technique of defending into its component parts. Hand-eye coordination, fast footwork and timing are, for Cooper, the most important skills in the art of defending.

“I just work on the pillars around it – so the footwork, the timing, the hand-placement, the eye. Some people find it kind of boring with the intricate breakdown of what happens. But I don’t, I just try and break it down as best I can and work on the individual components.

“Then within a game environment or training environment, hope that all them somewhat come together and allow me to execute the skill based on what is actually needed. Maybe a different angle or a size of player, or it could be a different type of player or whatever it happens to be.

“So I would work on (tackling). A lot of the forwards do their shooting and their frees and their one-on-ones. Whereas the skill that I would practice the most would be the footwork.

“Not so much the contact itself, but the footwork and the walk-through element of, in my head and physically what it actually feels and looks like. I still have a lot to improve, absolutely, but I’m enjoying that aspect of it.

“In basketball, they do a lot of two-ball stuff with tennis balls, it’s probably widely used now in GAA. They’ve been doing that for years.

“I tried the (occlusion) goggles and they are very good but I’d only use them to a certain place and then I kind take them away and get the natural feel of it. They’ll help a certain portion, maybe reactive times or peripheral vision but I wouldn’t use it in a live or full scenario because it’s probably not realistic in terms of what you’re going to see. But definitely useful in smaller ways.”

Jonny Cooper and Tiernan McCann Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Last month Tyrone legend Owen Mulligan compared Cooper to Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and the Na Fianna man says he was unsure what to make of that comparison.

“It was interesting. It’s probably a bad thing in some people’s eyes. Some people have interpreted – I don’t know much about soccer – but he has a split fanbase I guess. Some people like him and some people don’t. That’s maybe the same for me. 

“Maybe it is a compliment, I don’t know what way it was intended by him. It’s hard to know what way to interpret it. 

“I just do what I need to do whether that’s defensively or protecting Stephen (Cluxton) or Evan (Comerford) or one of the goalkeepers behind me. I just do what I feel is right at the time, I don’t intentionally go to get yellows or anything like that but sometimes cases will arise that situation just happens.

“I try as best I can to practice the correct technique and tackle and everything else but I sometimes it doesn’t work out like that. I’ve said it loads of times before, I play my best stuff on the edge. Sometimes I misread a situation and misjudge it and consequences they happen after that. I guess it’s good he mentioned me or somebody mentioned me in some regard, whatever regard that is.”

Paul Mannion and Jonny Cooper with Adrian Varley Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 28-year-old made his senior debut for Dublin in 2013 and in the years since has learned to deal with the outside noise that comes with the territory.

“You definitely hear it. We’re all human and social media…you hear it you absolutely do. I’d like to think I’ve enough experience to know what’s of value, what’s not of value, what’s filling up inches, what opinion is out there and what I should or shouldn’t be looking at.

“Being a couple of years in it whatever way my psyche is or whatever way I’m built, I typically don’t take too much stuff on board. If I hear something I’ll hear it but it doesn’t actually get processed or affect me in any negative or positive way. It doesn’t really affect me in that sense, I definitely hear it but it doesn’t really affect me in that sense.  

“Sometimes it can be difficult not to actually take heed of what’s out there but also to use to in the way it’s not supposed to be used. Definitely over a few years but it takes you to develop that mindset to build some resistance and get the experience of what’s valuable to you and what’s not.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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