# best mates
'We just had a bet on for the regular season. He just won it... Fair play to him'
John Cooney and Jack Carty, close friends off the pitch, face each other in the Pro14 quarter-finals tomorrow.

WIN OR LOSE, it’s all round to John Cooney’s on Saturday night.

The result will probably make a big difference to the mood at the scrum-half’s planned birthday bash in Belfast, though given it will be populated by Ulster and Connacht players alike, there’s bound to be a few polarising moods after how tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 quarter-final goes.

It probably doesn’t help that there are already a few polarising opinions on the party itself to begin with.

John Cooney Declan Roughan / INPHO Cooney turned 29 this week. Declan Roughan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m keeping it quiet, I’m slowly meeting people and telling them, and then after the game was going to tell everyone,” grins the scrum-half, whose 29th birthday was on Wednesday.

It’s not just current players he’s rubbed the wrong way either. Andrew Trimble revealed he hadn’t received an invite either.

“I sent him a message yesterday, [he] left it unopened and never even replied, that’s pretty hard!” added Cooney.

The Dubliner doesn’t shy away from naming and shaming the culprit for letting slip the news about the party either, squarely pointing the finger at former Connacht team-mate and soon to be rival on the pitch Jack Carty.

The westerners’ out-half, who has been doing his own fair share of media output this week, seemed to miss the memo that the get together was to be kept a secret by revealing that it was taking place, much to Trimble’s chagrin.

Not that Cooney minds too much. The pair are very close friends and, naturally, Carty would have been the first on the invite list.

As such, the glowing praise Cooney puts forward when asked about Carty’s development this season brings a genuine smile to your face. Once halfback partners in Galway, and briefly in the green of Ireland, the two know each other’s games inside and out.

Therefore there’s no one better than Cooney to accurately describe just how much Carty has progressed this season, going from a solid squad player at the Sportsground to Irish Players’ Player of the Year nominee and potential World Cup squad bolter.

Jack Carty and John Cooney after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Carty and Cooney are close friends. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s been great, I’ve seen his development over the last five or six years and he has consistently improved a lot, worked on himself a lot,” enthuses Cooney.

“I know he has gone to see sports psychologists a lot and he has worked with different ways of improving himself and especially his kicking. He has done a lot with Richie Murphy, he has always been a player who could do everything but he just needed that confidence to back himself.

“He has just become that player who can pull stuff out of the blue in a game. His kicking percentage is up over 80% or 79… well, I do actually know what it is because we have a competition between each other!

“He’s doing brilliant. He definitely deserves it for all the hard work he has done.”

The pair are still so close that they even share a WhatsApp group with a mutual friend to share advice and interesting articles they’ve found. Fear not, conspiracy theorists, it’s not for sharing in-depth team secrets, you can rest easy.

But it is a reflection on how alike the two are in their approach to the game. Both adopt a very methodical and in-depth approach to their goal-kicking and both go above and beyond when it comes to analysing games. It would seem a waste not to utilise that shared knowledge.

“We talk quite a lot and use ideas that we find pretty beneficial to each other, certain podcasts we would usually share with each other,” adds Cooney.

“When we were together playing half back we hung out a lot together and we always tried to pick each other’s brains. It has definitely improved our games. I think for both of us it has helped our performances.”

So much so that, in their now frequent wagers, Carty has started to pull ahead.

Jack Carty and John Cooney James Crombie / INPHO Carty and Cooney warm up for Ireland. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Cooney shifts sheepishly in his seat before admitting: “We just had a bet on for the regular season. He just won it, he had more points and was better by 1% in the goal kicking.

“Fair play to him,” he adds with a wry grin, with more than a sense of ‘I’ll get you back’ in his tone, and the first part of the payback might come in the build-up to tomorrow’s game.

“Last time we played I had a video of me tackling him and I sent him a slow-mo of it. He got a bit nervous, so I’ll probably send him that again!” he chuckles.

It’s rather fitting that the pair will face off in a do-or-die Guinness Pro14 quarter-final in Belfast tomorrow with everything on the line. Two close friends who, on any other weekend, would probably be sending each other corresponding good luck messages for whoever they’re playing.

This week there’ll be nothing of the sort. Once the two warriors cross the white line at the side of the pitch, all friendships will be put on hold and the animosity of an inter-provincial derby will take over. There are no friends on the pitch, particularly in knockout rugby.

By the time they meet for Saturday night’s birthday bash, no matter what the mood, one player will be preparing for a semi-final against the Glasgow Warriors in a couple of weeks. The other will be off on his summer holidays.

For Ulster as a whole, it’s a chance for some kind of semblance of vengeance. While winning one of three meetings between the two teams in the season won’t look good from a numbers perspective, winning the most important of the three games would go a long way to making up for those disappointments.

Connacht, however, have become something of a bogey team for Dan McFarland’s side, who have lost three straight to their Irish neighbours and no longer have that 58-year unbeaten record in Belfast to boast in their favour.

As a result, this is not the same Connacht they’ll have faced before. Belfast is no longer an imposing venue on the road and their visitors have nothing to lose – win and it’s a great result, lose and it’s what was expected from a visiting team in the play-offs.

John Cooney Morgan Treacy / INPHO Cooney was left gutted by Ulster's quarter-final defeat in Europe. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“It is a different Connacht, normally you have a Connacht with a chip on their shoulder,” warns Cooney.

“They are coming here pretty confident having beaten us twice, they have started well against us, in the first 20 minutes they are 14-0 up against us in both games so we have analysed that and how important it is we start well this week.

“Just talking to a few of them, the way Andy Friend has come in he has just brought a lot of confidence and he wants them to play their own game and play to their strengths rather than continuously working on your weaknesses.

“I think that is what they have brought in this year, their first play-off since the year they won it, it’s huge for the province and huge for the team.”

While both sides are making their returns to Pro14 knockout rugby, both having sat idle deep into April and May since 2016, it’s neither side’s first experience of knock-out rugby this season with both having exited at the quarter-final stages in Europe, just in different competitions.

Learnings were taken, some harsher than others, and Cooney admits he’s still haunted by the missed conversion that, at the time, would have taken Ulster ahead in their ultimately fruitless effort against Leinster in Dublin.

Arguably it’s not quite as vital as, say, Jacob Stockdale’s botched try given that even if he had converted the kick, Ross Byrne’s penalty would still have given Leinster the victory, however it hasn’t stopped Cooney mulling it over since.

Going into this game, he insists he won’t make the same mistake again. This is very much a learning process for a young Ulster squad who are still growing, but that doesn’t prevent them from dreaming that maybe, just maybe, there’s silverware in year one of the long-term plan.

John Cooney kicks Craig Watson / INPHO Cooney kicks at goal for Ulster. Craig Watson / INPHO / INPHO

“I was cramping up before, but it was just… I think I was too laid back,” he admits of the kick, almost in a sense of self-chastising. “It was a tricky kick and, if you think, it was similar to the one Johnny [Sexton] missed against New Zealand.

“It is a kick where you do not know whether to do your routine or just tip it over. I have always got away with just tipping it over, and eventually it was going to come and bite me in the ass, and it did. It was nothing to do with nerves, I thought just tip it over the bar and just hooked it a little bit.

“Now I have practiced that kick a couple of times and my first kick against Edinburgh was that kick, so from now on I am not going to be as relaxed.

“It highlighted how important small moments are, and key margins. For myself, after the game I did not even notice anything Jacob had done, I had completely forgotten about it. For me, my role was to get the kicks and I missed an easy one.

“It is a collective of individuals, we all have to make sure we get our roles now. I know that now and I know going into this game we can take a lot of learnings from that play-off game.”

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to discuss all the week’s rugby news.:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel