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'I feel a much bigger part of this team': Cooney taking aim at Leinster

The Lansdowne man has not kicked a meaningful goal in the Aviva Stadium, but that is set to change this evening.

Cooney in training this week.
Cooney in training this week.
Image: Matt Mackey/INPHO

JOHN COONEY WORE blue when these two sides last met in Europe, and he helped to twist the knife as Leinster romped to their third Heineken Cup in Twickenham.

That day in 2012 Cooney was further proof of the faith Joe Schmidt was ready to put in exciting youth. Isaac Boss was a late withdrawal and Cooney was dropped in for a debut on the biggest stage.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter. It adds that extra bit of fire in the belly,” he says of the embers stoked with a Leinster jersey standing ahead of Ulster ahead of today’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva (kick-off 17.45, BT Sport).

Cooney is five years removed from his native province, having joined Quinn Roux in signing a loan deal with Connacht after Matt O’Connor’s first season. So when he mentions that acute sense of extra motivation and how this fixture means more than a quarter-final away in, say, France, he gives the sense that it’s down to inter-provincial rivalry as opposed to a personal vendetta against his native province.

“When you’re struggling, fatigued in a game, that’s where you find that extra level. I’ve only played them a few times. I’ve played Connacht and came out of those games battered.”

The scrum-half adds: “I made my European debut in the (2012) final. I didn’t feel that much a part of it as I hadn’t played. I only played the final.

It was brilliant and amazing to do, but I definitely feel a much bigger part of this team.

“I’ve developed a lot since then. Three shoulder injuries since then, I’ve taken the positives out of those set-backs and they’ve done me good. I think I’ve adapted how I play and I’ve improved as a person. I’ve come a long way since then.”

He is a leader in this Ulster squad as well as their talismanic goal-kicker, but as he walks into the Aviva Stadium press room after kicking practice, he admits that he has yet to register a score with his boot in this stadium.

He mentions in passing that Darren Cave has been good enough to highlight a big chance to break that duck after he scored under the posts against England in the opening week of the Six Nations. It sounds like a pointed challenge from the veteran centre: no deference will be paid to Leinster men today.

“Darren Cave is still slagging me that I didn’t take the drop-goal when I scored the try here (against England). I gave the ball to Johnny (Sexton) but I have practiced here and I have played here before with Lansdowne, but back then I didn’t goal-kick so I have never gotten to kick one here.”

John Cooney practices kicks In sight: Cooney lines up a kick at the Aviva ahead of the clash with France. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Few outside of Ulster can foresee an upset with an away win on Lansdowne Road this evening. But Cooney puts great stock into visualising outcomes so that he can be prepared for them when the time comes.

He recently came across his 2018 notebook and can smile at the unfulfilled goal of playing in the Six Nations, because his cameos from the bench were one of few bright sparks about Ireland in 2019.

“To have achieved that this year means a lot. Obviously I was annoyed not to play the last one but like I said, to play four out of five, I would have bit the arm off that the year before.It’s good coming back into Ulster now, I have got that extra bit of confidence. It’s good to be back with the boys but I enjoyed that Six Nations.”

“It’s a big game for us, everyone knows they’re the European champions. You’d be lying if you said you hadn’t thought about winning. You have to visualise those sorts of things.

“I thought about the journey home after getting the win.

“We’ve nothing to lose, everyone is confident.”

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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