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Cooney keeping Kobe Bryant's words in mind as Six Nations hype builds

The 29-year-old Ulster scrum-half scored another two tries on Friday against Harlequins.
Dec 16th 2019, 3:16 PM 24,909 11

GIVEN THAT HE’S increasingly making a habit of showing off classy dribbling skills, it comes as little surprise that John Cooney is a big football fan.

Even the football-supporting side of his life is going well at the moment, with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool coasting in the Premier League.

john-cooney-scores-a-try Cooney has scored seven tries already this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cooney’s all-time favourite Liverpool player?

Michael Owen.

“My girlfriend is sick of it!” jokes Cooney. “I have a signed Michael Owen jersey up in my house. I don’t have a framed Ireland one or an Ulster one or anything!”

Twice in recent weeks, 29-year-old Cooney’s fine touch has come in useful with the ball bobbling on the ground, first after his chip against Clermont as he nudged ahead to finish a sublime solo try.

And he repeated the trick on Friday night as Ulster hammered Harlequins 34-10, with Cooney’s second try coming as he reacted superbly to the ball squirting out of a ruck, the scrum-half dribbling ahead before gathering and side-stepping the last defender.

“Things have just been coming my way and some of them go back to football,” says Cooney. “I love football. Dan [McFarland, Ulster's head coach] probably gets annoyed when I’m kicking a ball in the gym but it’s just something I love and it’s coming through in the games.”

Cooney has looked like a different player over the last two seasons, thriving with the backing of McFarland and the responsibility that comes with being Ulster’s main man in the nine shirt.

He has also added new elements to his game, ‘scooting’ away from rucks and mauls more dangerously than ever, something that Ulster attack coach Dwayne Peel – an excellent scrum-half in his own playing days – has been encouraging.

john-cooney-takes-a-kick Cooney has been kicking well from hand and from the tee. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It has helped Cooney to score seven tries so far in this campaign, already more than he has ever managed in a single season as a professional.

“Peely in the summer said he wanted more from us in terms of tries, rather than just support lines, to have more of a crack ourselves,” says Cooney. “That got into my head and in the summer I worked on that and wanted to try to get more tries.

“It’s going back to training in the week and seeing different pictures. Darren Cave always used to talk about it – the older you get, the more you’re seeing things you’ve seen before and I find that the more I see it in training, the more it opens up in games.”

As satisfying as his brace of tries against Quins was the try-saving tackle Cooney pulled off on Ross Chisholm in the second half at the Stoop, with the former Leinster and Connacht man putting it down to his fitness and a focus on his defence after missing out on the World Cup with Ireland.

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“The way we train at the moment, Dan pushes us to be fit and get the ball away as quick as possible,” he says. “I’m coming out of games feeling really fresh and feel like I can play every week.

“For me, that’s probably more coming off the back of not making the World Cup squad – one of things that was highlighted was that I had to keep working defensively so to come out with moments like that is probably more important.”

Cooney was hurt not to even get a chance in Ireland’s World Cup warm-up games despite his excellent form last season for Ulster but he has channeled the frustration in the right way, using it as fuel to drive further improvement in his game.

Such is his current form, most Ireland fans want to see Cooney in Ireland’s number nine shirt for the 2020 Six Nations, although the Ulster man is doing his best not to get caught up in the hype.

john-cooney-and-luke-marshall-celebrate-after-the-game Cooney celebrates Ulster's win with Luke Marshall. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve never been the type to get hype, it’s always been hard work,” says Cooney. “I’m very responsive to other athletes and Kobe Bryant talks about mental toughness being an even keel – never too high, never too low.

“For me, at the low points, it was trying to never be too low and stay on top of that. I think I backed it up this week because I didn’t want things to go to my head. I wanted to go out and perform as I knew that I could so that’s what I want to do each week.”

Cooney points out that he is still making lots of mistakes amidst his game-winning moments and sharp goal-kicking, meaning he won’t be losing focus on continuing to get better. 

Cooney feels like he’s only really getting started.

“I think it’s just consistency of action and working hard,” says Cooney of his mindset. “I’ve always worked hard and tied into the mental approach through Dan, the psychology.

“Through injuries, I’ve gotten a lot better and it’s something I practice a lot. People forget you might have niggles. I’ve a foot niggle but I’m going to the mind gym, as Joe [Schmidt] calls it, and working on the mental aspect of kicking kicks when I can’t actually kick and that’s a point of difference when I look around at other people.

“I try to attack each day and I see people meandering through days and it’s something I try to work hard at.”

Originally published at 01.00

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