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'The Six Nations, I kind of left without any answers' - Cooney opens up on Ireland frustration

The Ulster scrum-half won the last of his 11 caps for Ireland in February 2020.

Ireland and Ulster player John Cooney.
Ireland and Ulster player John Cooney.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

JOHN COONEY LOGS in for a morning video call, a framed Leinster jersey hanging on the wall just over his right shoulder, with a Lionel Messi Barcelona shirt just out of sight to his left. The space between, he explains, saved for an Ulster shirt, “When we win something.”

He last wore an Ireland jersey in February of last year, 16 long months ago. He has no idea when, or if, he’ll wear one again.

Many observers see Cooney’s ongoing exclusion from international squads as one of the great puzzles in Irish rugby, and it’s been a while since the man himself offered his side of the story.

To recap, Cooney missed out on the initial squad for this year’s Six Nations but was drafted in as injury cover, before being released without seeing any action. Last October he offered the same service when Jamison Gibson-Park battled a tight hamstring. He also missed out on the squad for the recent summer Tests, but a neck injury made that decision before Ireland head coach Andy Farrell had to.

Sometimes selection calls don’t go your way – he accepts that much – but Cooney also explains that his most recent experience in the Ireland camp left him with more questions than answers. Last autumn he was still feeling his way back from a pre-season Achilles injury, but come the Six Nations, the scrum-half felt his strong form with Ulster warranted reward.

“I think I did have a really good season,” Cooney explains.

“I actually think my season last season (2020/21) was nearly better than the season before, in terms of (being) a team player.

irelands-john-cooney-2322020 Cooney won the last of his 11 caps for Ireland in February 2020. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So I was very disappointed not to make the Six Nations squad. I thought I was playing well and I thought I deserved a chance.”

Cooney eventually came into the squad as cover and trained away for a while, before being sent home again.

“That was kind of the issue I left the last selection for the Six Nations with… I kind of left without any answers and that was difficult for me, because I didn’t know what I was meant to work on.

“The next week we had to go down and train against them with Ulster, so that was difficult. But I was given the option of doing it or not and I thought I would go down, hold my head high and train well against them. 

“I didn’t really get many answers. I’ve always put a big emphasis on just looking after myself and playing the way I want to play. Things that I probably didn’t do as well the season before, I think I did really well last year.

“I think it’s probably the best I’ve defended since I’ve had these three shoulder surgeries, so I was really happy with the leadership I showed in terms of our defence, I organised a lot of it, so it’s definitely something that I could have been told to work on that I think I have.

“I try to be self-aware in realising the things I need to get better at.” 

Cooney has had contact with Farrell since, but still feels unclear on what the Irish coaches want to see from him.

“It probably was just more clarity (that I wanted). We talked on the phone recently and I felt I didn’t really get it again, so maybe we’re not on as good terms as we would have been a year ago. 

I’m the type of guy that I can accept if he’s going to be honest with me, and I would prefer him just to tell me what I need to do. I’ve had these discussions with Dan (McFarland), and I’d prefer to have it out with a coach rather than tip-toeing around, because that’s something that I probably did early in my career with Matt O’Connor, and I realise that sometimes you have to have those hard conversations and get that feedback that you need. 

“When Ulster trained against Ireland (during the Six Nations), I remember Richie Murphy rang me after and gave me a little bit of feedback. But I took everything he told me on board, and I did all of the things he told me to do, so like I said, I don’t know whether I was going to be in the squad this summer or not but I feel I did everything that was asked of me.

“In that way I can hold my head high. Everything that I have been asked to do the last couple of years, I’ve done it, so I’m proud of that.”

Cooney, 31, has had to get used to dealing with selection setbacks over the years, but admits it never gets any easier to accept.

“I’ve probably actually gotten worse with it to be honest, because I feel like I deserve it even more and more each time,” he explains. “I feel like I leave knowing that I should be there and it probably brings out the stubbornness or the anger within me.”

Those experiences have also made Cooney, an ambassador for the Tackle Your Feelings, appreciate the support structures he has around him. 

“I had three shoulder surgeries and a broken jaw in a couple of the first years of my career, and the things you learn is that if you make it just about yourself and your own perspective, it’s very difficult to keep going.

john-cooney-kicks-a-penalty Cooney started 19 games for Ulster last season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The whole thing that got me through that was my family, my girlfriend, the people close to me. I’ve learned that you can’t really do much without those people, and that infrastructure and support network you have around you is important because times were tough this year with lockdown.”

Cooney makes a conscious effort to look after his mental health, but the challenges of lockdown still proved testing.

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“I’ve realised how much rugby takes of our time and our mental energy,” he says.

“The lows were really low and the highs were pretty low as well because after big games you were just at home watching TV. You didn’t get to enjoy anything. There were no crowds, no kind of community, you don’t see your family after games. 

I found that quite difficult at the start, but through everything you learn. Through failure there’s opportunity and I think I learned a lot about looking after myself and realising that it’s all up to me and taking control of myself, taking control of the mental side of it as well. That’s something I put a big onus on and now in reflection, I’m really proud of how I reacted. I finished the season really well and I’m proud of that.”

The neck injury that kept Cooney out of the Ireland squad this month traces back three months to his concussion during Ulster’s Challenge Cup game with Leicester. His workload is still quite limited at the moment but he’s hoping to get involved in pre-season training in the coming weeks.

From there it will be a case of reset, regather and go again, with making that Ireland squad still the driving motivation.

“I’m a big lover of Kobe Bryant. He talks about there always being another level, and that’s something I always try to do each season –  what can I do a little bit better?

“I’m sure I’m going to sit down with my book in a couple of days before I start pre-season on Monday, and try highlight the things I can do better.

“There definitely are (things I can improve on), there always is. You can always be better and I want to be world class. I want to be as good as I can.”

Ireland and Ulster player John Cooney has teamed up with Connacht player, Jack Carty and the Tackle Your Feelings campaign to release a new video, highlighting the importance of their friendship and how they have leaned on each other at critical points in their careers. 

Originally published at 0700

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Ciarán Kennedy

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