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'I was pretty emotional on the bus coming to the game, it meant a lot to my family'

It was a night to forget for Ireland, but one John Cooney and his family will always remember.

JOHN COONEY WATCHED and waited. He sat beside Joey Carbery on the bench, sharing thoughts on the pattern of the game, and where it was all going so horribly wrong for Ireland. Where, and how, could he make a difference?

The clock ticked down, and the game slipped away from Ireland. Cooney kept warm, hoping he would get the call. It wasn’t exactly the way he wanted to make his Six Nations debut, but it was a big moment for the Ulster scrum-half and his family.

John Cooney scores a try Cooney crosses for Ireland's second try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With three minutes left on the clock, and the result beyond Ireland, he replaced Conor Murray. It was a night to forget for Joe Schmidt’s side, but it meant the world to Cooney. You could see it during the anthems, and again post-match when he made his way into the mixed zone. 

Having won four caps before Saturday night, it was a big step to force his way into the squad for a Six Nations game. His form merited it and although Cooney had little time to make any sort of impact, he embellished his brief cameo off the bench with a first international try, after Sean Cronin’s break.

“It was a consolation try, it’s more for my family and people who have been around for the last while when I was struggling with injury,” he said.

“It was nice for them but at the end of the day it didn’t really matter.”  

With Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion out injured, Cooney’s consistently excellent performances for Ulster during the northern province’s Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign deservedly earned him further international recognition.

But it has been a long road to this stage for the 28-year-old, who started his career with his native Leinster before moving west to Connacht and then up to Belfast, where he has excelled in the last two years.

Cooney’s Ireland debut came against Japan in June 2017 and after going on the tour of Australia last summer, earned his first start in green during the final November series win over USA at the Aviva Stadium. 

Reflecting on his career journey, during which he sought the help of a counsellor after suffering a number of injury setbacks at Connacht, Cooney admitted he struggled to keep his emotions in check ahead of Saturday’s game. 

“For me it was pretty emotional because when you set a big goal and you’re injured and nowhere near it…” he continued.

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“I always believed I could get there, it was the ticking of a box, I had this thing mentality. I met a sports psychologist and she told me to train as if I was already an international. I always held myself to those standards in training and it has paid dividends in the end.

Andrew Porter, John Cooney, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose dejected after the game There was bitter disappointment for Ireland and Cooney. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It meant a lot to my family, it’s something we would have grown up watching. I was pretty emotional getting on the bus and going to the game. Come the end, I didn’t know if I was going to get on. 

“It was nice to get those few minutes but there was no pressure on me, it’s easy to come on in those sort of games, it’s completely different coming on in a tight game or when you’re starting.

“There’s a hugely different mentality when you’re losing, it’s quite easy to look good at scrum-half when there’s nothing to play for, at the end we could have gotten a bonus point and I think the tempo was quite good but you’re just trying to fit into the team.”

The hope for Cooney is to kick on and build into next week’s trip to Murrayfield, which will be of huge significance for the nine as his father is from Glasgow. 

“I did okay in November, I would have liked to do better, but hopefully, I can keep going from here,” he adds. 

My Dad is from Glasgow, they’ve [his parents] already booked the flights over. My Granddad and my uncles, they all still live in Glasgow, so it’s a huge one for me personally.

“It’s a big one now to go to Murrayfield, they’ll be on a high, they’ve two home games so it’s important for them, but it couldn’t be a bigger game for us.

“It’s a challenge but there’s no better place to go and get a win.”

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Ryan Bailey

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