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Dublin: 9°C Monday 8 March 2021

50 not out as Ulster's Cooney focuses on positives following World Cup cut disappointment

The 29-year-old will earn his 50th cap from the bench at Kingspan Stadium tonight.

HE MAY HAVE hoped that the milestone came a bit later this season, but there’s a fair amount of pride going around as John Cooney prepares to make his 50th Ulster appearance tonight.

john-cooney Ulster star John Cooney. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

When the 29-year-old takes to the field tonight – as a second-half replacement – against Zebre at Kingspan Stadium [kick-off 7.35pm], he’ll hit the half-century mark just over two years after joining the northern province, a mark he was always keen to eclipse given his history.

At both Leinster and Connacht, injuries and other players ahead of him in the pecking order limited his game time. Now, with Ulster, he’s cemented himself as an integral part of the system and, as such, the caps have slowly racked up.

Starting the season on 45 appearances, perhaps he would have hoped that this moment came a bit further down the line given his desire to be involved in the World Cup, but that won’t make the achievement any less sweet.

It’s a night like this that will prove a nice reminder to Cooney that his decision to make the plunge and join Ulster in the first place was the correct one. His game has come on leaps and bounds since relocating to Kingspan Stadium, and now he will have a milestone as confirmation.

That, in itself, is a testament to how the scrum-half has endeared himself to the Ulster fan base. When he comes on in the place of starter Dave Shanahan tonight, you can safely say that the cheer will be for the man coming on rather than the man going off.

“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to. Since the start of the season it was the first personal milestone I wanted to get to,” says Cooney.

“I’ve had injuries in the past, so it’s come around quite quickly to do it in two and a bit years, whereas at Connacht in three years I only just got over the 40 caps. It is nice to be injury free, that’s the main thing.”

Of course, the World Cup itself is a contentious topic. Heading into the summer, Cooney likely thought given his performances in a white jersey he would get a fair crack at making the squad to head to Japan, but was among the first wave of cuts all the way back in August.

From the outside, after another brilliant campaign for Ulster it seemed like Cooney had at least forced himself into the conversation for a place on the plane, but his early jettison was certainly a surprise, only made a bit clearer when in the end Joe Schmidt only took two scrum-halves.

What that did allow Cooney to do, at least, was make an early return to Ulster and settle back into the regular routine of provincial rugby. As someone who is big on the mental side of the game, it was a good test of his own resolve.

john-cooney Facing France in the Six Nations. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Like anything, there’s two sides to it. I was obviously very disappointed not to make it but it’s not going to get me too far if I’m sitting at home sulking or feeling sorry for myself,” he says.

“I enjoy the environment here and it was nice to get home and just be where I’m appreciated or liked. I was annoyed, but I was happy to be home. I enjoy the environment and the speed we’re playing with and I’m feeling good in these first few games.”

And, of course, with a changing of the guard at the head of the Ireland senior team following the exit from the World Cup, there is a chance that he may be looked on somewhat more favourably by Andy Farrell than Schmidt.

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“Things are always uncertain when a new coach comes in, I’ve been on the wrong side of them before in Leinster with Matt O’Connor coming in,” recalls Cooney, who earned all eight of his Ireland caps under Schmidt.

“You never know what they think of you or whether they want you in their plans. I get on well with Faz and I hope I’m the player he likes in attack and defence. There are no certainties I’ll be in the (Six Nations) squad but all I can do is the same as the last two years and try to play well every week.”

So far he’s gone back to his province and once again proven that he’s key to everything that Dan McFarland’s side are trying to accomplish. His settled presence in the No.9 jersey, allied to his consistent levels of performance, have very much been Ireland’s loss and Ulster’s gain.

Last weekend, in Ulster’s 23-14 win over the Cardiff Blues, it was Cooney’s box kicking that was the key to their success, his pinpoint aerial bombardment causing the Blues’ back three no end of problems, earning Ulster territory at key moments.

Through the opening four games, the former Gonzaga College man leads the PRO14 scoring charts with 48 points, holding off his predecessor at Ulster Ruan Pienaar, and barring one off-colour display against the Cheetahs he has produced his usual high standard of displays.

Normally he wouldn’t, but Cooney does care about the fact that he’s leading the scoring charts, although it’s not for the reason you may think. Or even the scoring chart you may think.

“The main reason I care about it is that I have that bet on with Jack Carty again, so I got a head start with him at the World Cup! I told him the other day he has a bit to catch up with!” laughs the Ulsterman.

john-cooney-arrives A big night ahead for Cooney. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Tonight it stands to reason that he should rack up a few more points and extend his lead in their betting stakes against thus far winless Zebre as Ulster aim to make it four wins from their opening five games in the Pro14.

This is the second game in an important five-game stretch for Ulster, which started with last weekend’s win over the Blues in Belfast and continues with a massive interprovincial tussle at Thomond Park next weekend, followed by their first forays into Europe at Bath and at home to Clermont.

While the results have been falling their way in recent weeks, Ulster are still searching for that 80-minute display, and Cooney highlights the importance of getting it right as this tough stretch of games continues to ramp up into the return of the Champions Cup.

“It’s hugely important. Since Connacht at home [last October] we haven’t lost, so we do find it easy to get up for these games at home and it would be nice getting some momentum going into these European games,” admits Cooney.

“I know I’m still pretty pissed off about the Munster away game last season, and we want to go down there and put in a big performance, so for us to perform well going into that game and Europe would be nice.

“We need to get a 60-80 minute performance rather than a 20-30 minute performance that we’ve produced in the last few games. There’s a lot to work on rather than be content with how we played.”

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