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'I'd rather fill big boots than small ones. It's a big challenge but that's what I'm here for'

John Cooney has no fear of taking on Ruan Pienaar’s role at the Kingspan stadium.

John Cooney launching the new Ulster jersey yesterday.
John Cooney launching the new Ulster jersey yesterday.
Image: Presseye/Kelvin Boyes/INPHO

THERE’S SOMETHING WE’VE known for about a year now: whoever would be the starting scrum-half for Ulster this season would have big shoes to fill.

It’s an imposing task replacing someone who’s become something of a cult legend at a club, but someone had to follow in the footsteps of Ruan Pienaar at the Kingspan Stadium.

And yet, surprisingly, the next number nine to wear the red hand is relishing the challenge of living up to that star billing.

“It’s a big deal with (Pienaar) leaving but I prefer coming in where a big player has been before because I love a challenge,” says John Cooney.

I’d rather fill big boots than small ones. It’s a big challenge but that’s what I’m here for.”

He was the first name on Ulster’s list when Pienaar left and, by the scrum half’s own admission, he was eager to make the move himself.

“I remember hearing about him on the radio that he’d have to leave and just thought straightaway that there’d be an opportunity there with me being out of contract at the end of the year,” the Dubliner recounts.

“I texted my agent straight away thinking it would be great for me. I was hoping they’d get on to me about it and a few weeks later they did.”

Cooney, now 27, joins Ulster as an Irish international following his selection for the summer tour of the US and Japan, departing Connacht where he had a frustrating time both through injury and selection.

Battling with Kieran Marmion for that starting jersey, they shared a lot of time under Pat Lam, however on most occasions it would be Marmion given the nod for the big games.

It was a continuation of his time at Leinster where he struggled for playing time behind several internationals, and it fuelled the desire to move to greener pastures slightly further north.

Playing time was the main thing, with Ruan leaving I thought I could get some games here,” the Irishman confessed. “I want to start the big games. I don’t want to be playing one week and out the next.”

Cooney was part of the Leinster side that defeated Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final, coming on from the bench, and says he’s surprised that Ulster haven’t been successful over the last few years.

Nevertheless, Ulster fans will be excited to hear that Cooney believes this squad has the ability to end the trophyless streak soon.

“I was talking to a few friends recently and just saying, if you take the Connacht team that won the PRO12, you wouldn’t necessarily say it was better than the Ulster team on paper,” he admitted.

“But it’s more than a squad, you need the culture and the confidence. People are concentrating on the players we don’t have but I think the culture we have will be completely different.

“Jono (Gibbes) is coming in and his aim is to make us a lot tougher. The confidence will go up. There’s a lot more to a team than just the players.”

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