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Cooney and Murray side-by-side and content to keep challenging each other

The two scrum-halves were presented for media duty simultaneously today and it wasn’t awkward at all.

THE MEN OF the moment, the pair at the centre of the biggest selection quandary facing Andy Farrell were now seated side-by-side for contrast and comparison.

conor-murray-and-john-cooney Big decision, small table. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A sign of the added flexibility the media-facing IRFU staff have in the post-Joe Schmidt era? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s a move that serves to take some of the edge off the outsider narrative pitting John Cooney and Conor Murray against one another in a war of words and column inches.

‘Is this awkward, lads?’

“No,” they say in unison, but Murray’s voice bears out the louder and he instinctively takes the role of the senior man as he adds: “ye make it weird.”

Team-mates spend a lot of time together. And positional rivals go through all the same sessions and meetings in camp. So the ill will we might project as one replaces the other with 20 minutes remaining is not borne out in more human engagements.

Still, as the form scrum-half in Europe issues a pancake-flat denial when asked if missing out on the starter’s jersey last weekend was a disappointment it’s tough to shake the notion that he might protest too much.

“It wasn’t, to be honest, because I just saw that I was in a much better position than I was this time last year,” said Cooney, noting that his chance off the bench against England last year came about due to injury to others.

It was important coming on – I hadn’t subbed too often this year with Ulster – for me to perform and just ease into the team whenever I could. So I was happy with the 20 minutes I got.”

It’s a remarkably sanguine position to take up within a squad that has such heated competition for places. It’s certainly at odds with the mood Cooney takes up when he crosses the white line, when he has bent matches to his will all season and tilted several contests with instinctive flourishes.

Cooney is nothing if not a student of mental processes. Taking heart from the long view of his progress does not come about by accident.

“It’s definitely something I’ve worked on over the last few years. Obviously, I’ve had to go the road less travelled – I’ve used that term before – I’ve struggled with injuries and it’s something I’ve learned.

“I get slagged a lot for reading a lot of books, I read ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ (by Ryan Halliday) is a book I’ve read. It discusses that, it’s the way you see your circumstances and how you react.

“You can go one of two ways and in the summer I told myself I was going to go the other way, try to improve myself personally and try and be in the position I am right now.

“It’s something you actively have to work on, I learnt to cut down on the over-training aspect of it. You think you have to train more and more sometimes, but I’ve learnt now psychologically you can get a lot more from that aspect of the game.

“I think, yeah, it’s how you react to circumstances for me.”

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john-cooney Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

This time tomorrow, though, one of Cooney or Murray will be left reacting to circumstances while the other holds the number 9 jersey for Saturday’s Test against Grand Slam-winners Wales.

Cooney hasn’t been given reams of notes from Farrell about what he must do to improve and displace the long-term incumbent. The new head coach has just tasked him with improving his service.

“We talk a lot about the collective in terms of our squad and I know how he wants us to play,” says the Ulster scrum-half.

“We did one on ones last week and he told me to keep getting the ball away fast. You see at the moment,that’s how we’re trying to play. He just said he thought I could do it even better. It’s a work-on for me, work-on for all of us.

“It’s a different type of game we’re playing compared to last year. It’s probably quite suited to the way we play up in Ulster.

“I know Dan McFarland always pushes me to do that so it’s just each week trying to improve that and get used to playing with different combinations and different people, making sure we get our shape right.”

As rivalry questions keep coming from the floor, Murray interjects: “we’re not that bad, lads. Don’t make it out to be worse than it is!”

And Cooney points out that they have been pushing along the same pecking order since U20s level in 2009. Albeit, they have gone about diverging paths to make it back into direct competition 11 years later.

“This isn’t a new thing,” Murray adds again, “I’ve been watching him and he’s been watching me for the last 10 or years. Nothing’s really changed.”

Except that, in the not too distant past Murray was arguably the best scrum-half in rugby and now the pressure is mounting and calls for Cooney are growing louder.

“It’s all credit to John. He is having an unbelievable season and you respect that.

“As soon as he came into camp it’s about Ireland. Everyone wants to start, Lukey (McGrath) involved as well, but as a group of three we are all working together and trying to figure this out together and out us into the best position to perform.

“I got the nod last weekend and John and Luke were really good to me in terms of analysis and just chats here and there.

It does add a bit in terms of motivation. You want to put in a performance. People start writing you off and things like that so naturally there was a bit of that there.

“But in our position having a calm head is probably one of the most important things you could do so trying to balance that was the challenge.”

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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