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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 16 May 2021

'I'd like to think I am' - Cooney feels ready for a Six Nations start for Ireland

The Ulster scrum-half is brimming with energy and belief in a superb run of form with Ulster.

JOHN COONEY RECKONS he hasn’t scored this many tries since an under-13 blitz at Gonzaga College.

Last weekend’s effort in Clermont brought him to nine tries for the season with Ulster so far and while bagging five-pointers isn’t everything for a scrum-half, Cooney is enjoying the prolific run.

The rest of his game is in good nick too, making him a strong contender to start for Ireland in the Six Nations, and the 29-year-old’s scoring run has featured some outstanding moments of individual brilliance. Pushed by Ulster attack coach Dwayne Peel – a classy scrum-half in his playing days – to score more this season, Cooney has delivered.

john-cooney-scores-a-try-despite-alivereti-raka Cooney can't stop scoring tries for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cooney is clearly brimming with confidence right now. He positively exuded it this week at Kingspan Stadium as he spoke ahead of today’s crucial Champions Cup clash with Bath at the Belfast venue [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport].

Fitter, stronger, faster. Cooney is the physical form of his life and that has driven his form. He’s played opposite the likes of Ireland rival Conor Murray, Danny Care, Greig Laidlaw, Morgan Parra, and Caolin Blade in recent times, coming out on top of most of the head-to-heads.

“I’m a competitor so any time I play number nine it’s one of my goals to play as well if not better than him,” says Cooney. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go into every game thinking I want to get the upper hand in these games.

“I feel physically very good at the moment. I’m getting through games and I don’t even have a niggle whereas in previous years you might have had a sore shoulder or a sore leg and it’s hard to get up for games.

“At the moment, I feel I’m playing games and could nearly play again the next day or two days after. I feel really good and it helps mentally when you’re going into games feeling really good.”

The energy Cooney is feeling right now comes across as he explains he is quicker than ever before, recently clocking up a speed of 10 metres per second on Ulster’s GPS system, a speed that is close to what many of the province’s wingers are capable of.

“I hit that peak speed time the other week and I’ve been chasing that for about four years because again I put a lot of emphasis on that part of my game. I want to be as fast as I can.

“I said I’m competitive and I want to be as fast as a winger and I’m trying to use my speed more than I have in recent seasons. I feel good and it’s been good finishing off some of those tries.”

Cooney does his best to ignore the hype around his form but he is naturally very aware of the widespread calls for him to be installed as Ireland’s starting scrum-half for the Six Nations opener against Scotland in two weeks’ time. 

john-cooney The 29-year-old feels ready for a Six Nations start. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Murray is the incumbent, while Leinster’s Luke McGrath is also in the squad, so Ireland boss Andy Farrell has three strong options.

Eight-times capped Cooney played off the bench four times during last year’s Six Nations, albeit only for a total of 37 minutes, and now feels ready to step up for his first start in the championship.

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“I’d like to think I am anyway,” says Cooney when asked if he’s ready. “You never know until you play but I find when I’m playing games I’m a different animal to when I’m training.

“It is difficult if you are just getting picked off your training performances because I find in a game you have adrenalin, you’re confident and you’re a different animal to what you are during the week, so I’d like to get an opportunity to show what I can do in a game.

“It would be nice to get that but it depends how he wants to go – if he wants to pick Conor or Luke or whoever.”

Murray and McGrath were both at the World Cup with Ireland last year under then-head coach Joe Schmidt, but Cooney was left out. The Ulster man had been part of Ireland’s pre-season only to be cut from the extended group before the warm-up games had even started.

His response since has been impressive.

“Obviously, it was disappointing in the summer not to get a game for Ireland and to get dropped quite early but I went home, dusted it off and took the positives from it. I was back in the atmosphere and environment that I enjoy.

“I took a lot from that Irish pre-season and I felt in really good shape coming back here. I took the positives and told myself I would come out and try and play as well as I can and give them no excuse not to pick me.

john-cooney-with-his-mother-liguori-after-the-game Cooney with his mother Liguori after a win at Kingspan Stadium. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s an attitude I’ve had for a couple of seasons and I’ve had setbacks and times when I thought I’d make the squad and haven’t, so I always just try and play as well as I can and that’s all I can really do.”

Cooney has certainly backed up his intent to give Farrell no excuses, while his performances have also helped to drive Ulster to the brink of qualification for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.

A win against Bath today will secure Ulster’s knock-out spot. The English side have lost all five of their pool games so far and have named a largely second-string side for this trip to Belfast. There is a slight degree of pressure on Dan McFarland’s side to finish the job, but Cooney is embracing that element of the day.

“I remember last year Will Addison said ‘pressure is a privilege’ and that is the position we put ourselves in this year. We did it last year to get to the quarter-final as well.”

It won’t be a great surprise if Cooney delivers again as Ulster look to wrap up that quarter-final place.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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