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'It just kind of blindsided me and it took way longer than I thought'

Ulster scrum-half John Cooney on putting his injury concerns behind him after overcoming disc damage in his neck.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT WAS THREE days after Ulster’s defeat to Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup semi-final that John Cooney knew something wasn’t right.

Sitting at home, he suddenly lost the power down his arm and alarm bells started to ring. He had experienced a concussion after being knocked out by Nemani Nadolo’s swinging arm at Welford Road, but this was another level of concern.

A scan revealed that he had disc damage in his neck which would end his involvement for the rest of the season. It was only three Rainbow Cup games he missed, admittedly, but for someone like Cooney it was too many.

john-cooney-leaves-the-field-injured Source: James Crombie/INPHO

 

That driven desire to get back on the pitch had him busting a gut in pre-season and, after a half in their friendly against Saracens, he was back in the starting line-up for the first game of this season when Glasgow Warriors came to Kingspan Stadium.

But, in reality, he wasn’t 100 percent. Half an hour into the new campaign, Cooney’s hamstring went and he was back on the shelf again.

“The neck (injury) kind of threw me off because I didn’t see it coming because it was from the head knock, it just kind of blindsided me and it took way longer than I thought,” grimaces Cooney.

“I found it kind of threw my whole body off. I never had a hamstring injury in my whole career. People might say I’m getting a little bit older but I refuse to believe that, I think it was from the neck with everything not flowing correctly.”

The second rehab stint saw him miss four games in the United Rugby Championship but, unlike after his neck injury, Cooney, aided by the well-timed international break and the new schedule which meant Ulster were inactive during all three weeks, took his time to work his way back.

Now, as he prepares to start against Leinster at the RDS Arena tonight (8pm), he believes the province will reap the rewards.

“In a weird way I saw the positives because it gave me two more months to get it right. Things that I couldn’t do the week of the Glasgow game I can do now really well,” adds the 31-year-old.

“I think everything feels physically a lot better than what it did and it has given me the seven months that I needed.

“After that Leicester game I didn’t think I was going to be out for seven months, I just thought it was going to be the concussion protocol because I walked off the field not thinking there was anything wrong with me.

“It was quite scary, but an injury like that grounded me and got me to appreciate the position I’m in and gave me that gratitude that I needed to humble me.”

nathan-doak Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That humility means he holds no ill-will towards teenage phenom Nathan Doak, who has stepped in at scrum-half in his absence and has looked every bit the successor in the No.9 jersey that the province have long hoped he will be.

Assured and composed on the ball, the 19-year-old was considered by many to be unlucky not to receive a call-up to the Ireland squad as a development player for the Autumn Internationals, such has been his impressive start to the campaign.

“I was nowhere near (his level) at that age,” enthuses Cooney, who has been able to watch Doak’s progression from the sideline. “It was good for him to get the game time that he probably didn’t think he was going to get.

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“To have an Ulster-born scrum-half in that position that they probably haven’t had for years is nice to see.

“I think I’m a lot more mature in my years where in the past I would have been at home gritting my teeth and getting pissed off with the competition, but I think it is a maturity thing that the better he plays the better I play.”

dan-mcfarland-with-john-cooney-during-the-warm-up Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Dan McFarland will be top of the list of people who hope that proves true, with Cooney parachuted back into the starting line-up in Dublin this evening and tasked with leading Ulster to only their second win at the showgrounds in their history.

The former Leinster and Connacht man will hope it is true, too. In the final year of his current deal at Kingspan Stadium and negotiating his first contract in his 30s, the scrum-half knows he is starting to approach the years of his career when the pound/euro/dollar signs start to matter a little more and after his injury trouble needs to turn in some big performances to strengthen his hand.

However, whether his future lies in Belfast, Ireland or even further afield, it seems like the only person not debating Cooney’s future is the man himself.

“It’s never been one of my worries or issues. Looking back on my career, I played in Connacht for three years and every year I kept signing one-year contracts,” he laughs.

“I feel it brought out the better side of me when your back was against the wall you had to perform, and I enjoyed that. It is not something that I really worry about – if anything it kicks me on to perform better and better.

“I’m not putting too much energy into that. My whole goal for those four or five months was to get back fit and play well.”

Ulster team to play Leinster

15. Mike Lowry

14. Craig Gilroy

13. James Hume

12. Stuart McCloskey

11. Ethan McIlroy

10. Billy Burns

9. John Cooney

1. Andrew Warwick

2. Rob Herring

3. Marty Moore

4. Alan O’Connor (captain)

5. Sam Carter

6. Greg Jones

7. Nick Timoney

8. David McCann

Replacements

16. Tom Stewart

17. Eric O’Sullivan

18. Ross Kane

19. Mick Kearney

20. Marcus Rea

21. Nathan Doak

22. Angus Curtis

23. Rob Lyttle

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