Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Cooney has been excellent for Ulster early on this season.
Proving a Point
'He has taken it in his stride' - Cooney bounces back to best form with Ulster
Meanwhile, props Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole continue to develop with the northern province.

THE LAST FEW months can’t have been easy for Ulster scrum-half John Cooney. 

He was dropped for the province’s Pro14 final clash with Leinster back in September, as head coach Dan McFarland opted for the experience of new signing Alby Mathewson in the number nine shirt instead.

Cooney was then left out of the Ireland squad for the delayed closing rounds of the Six Nations and though he briefly returned to camp as injury cover for Jamison Gibson-Park before the clash with France, he was again let out for the Autumn Nations Cup.

The 30-year-old, who played off the bench for Ireland three times earlier this year, has clearly been through some real disappointment but Ulster have been delighted with how Cooney has negotiated the tough patch and continued to deliver strong performances.

The scrum-half has been outstanding in starting all of Ulster’s opening five games of the new Pro14 season, helping them to a 100% success rate so far with his accurate kicking, sharp passing, two tries of his own, and a competition-leading 12 clean linebreaks.

If Cooney is going to convince Ireland boss Andy Farrell that he has erred in omitting him from the national squad, he has certainly made a good start.

“He’s been great, he’s a really good bloke,” says Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant. “He’s a really good guy away from the pitch, he does a lot of great things away from rugby, which is a reflection on him as a bloke and a personality.

“He is a great pro, he works really hard. He’s been good for this squad, he has taken stuff in his stride, selection stuff, and he has been playing well.

“He did really well [against Glasgow on Monday], he had a couple of great breaks – one off a maul in particular that he timed and his detail was perfect.

“He was kicking as he normally does and he seems to be in good form.”

ulster-roddy-grant Billy Stickland / INPHO Ulster forwards coach Roddy Grant. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster captain Iain Henderson and fullback Jacob Stockdale start for Ireland this evening against Wales, while out-half Billy Burns is set for his Test debut off the bench.

Centre Stuart McCloskey and hooker Rob Herring are also in Farrell’s wider squad for the Autumn Six Nations, but there are several more Ulstermen with international ambitions.

They include the prop pair of 22-year-old tighthead Tom O’Toole, who was part of the Ireland squad earlier this year but is currently sidelined with an ankle injury, and 24-year-old loosehead Eric O’Sullivan.

Both of them are uncapped, with O’Sullivan yet to feature in an Ireland squad, but forwards coach Grant knows very well how much potential they possess. He has thoroughly enjoyed working with them since arriving from Edinburgh last year. 

“They’re awesome, really coachable, so enthusiastic to get better,” says Grant.

“Eric hitting 50 caps against Glasgow, that’s an awesome achievement at a club like Ulster in such a short space of time and it speaks highly of his performance but also how he takes care of himself, his durability. I’ve noticed a huge difference in his trajectory working closely with him.

“Dan [McFarland] is a master of the scrum and we’re so fortunate those two young guys have Dan as their scrum coach, just the way he is with his detail and passion for it. It’s a great combination and you can see it in their scrumming, they’re going well.

ulsters-tom-otoole Billy Stickland / INPHO Tom O'Toole would likely have featured for Ireland but for injury. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Around the park, one of Tom O’Toole’s big work-ons, when I came in, was his body height at cleanouts. He just loves contact, he’s physical and we’ve worked on his detail. He just smokes guys and that’s one of his strengths now.

“They’ve gotten better really quickly and they’ve still got a long way to go. As we know with props, age is a massive thing. You get your man strength and man toughness and they’ve got that to come.

“Equally, I feel I can give them a glowing report because they don’t get ahead of themselves. Eric and Tom, I can give it to them straight, all us coaches can, and they take it on the chin and want to get better. It’s not all flashy, there is hard work there too.”

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