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Cooney looks to Clermont win for inspiration ahead of big test against Dupont and Toulouse

‘It gives us massive confidence going to a big team, knowing we can come away with the win which we haven’t done in years gone by.’

John Cooney celebrates after the win against Clermont in December.
John Cooney celebrates after the win against Clermont in December.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

EARLIER THIS WEEK, on a short training day, John Cooney found himself re-watching Ulster’s win in Clermont back in December, as if to try and glean whatever he could from that performance ahead of their visit to Toulouse today.

“I think we played really well in the way we moved the ball, used our speed out wide and probably squeezed them throughout the game and stuck in for the last 20 minutes,” recalls the scrum-half of that performance.

“It gives us massive confidence going to a big team like Toulouse, similar to Clermont, knowing we can come away with the win which we haven’t done in years gone by. That’s probably been our best performance this season and if we can emulate that again this week then I think we’ll go a long way.”

Of course, Toulouse will likely offer a sterner threat than a Clermont team that are not quite the threat they once were in today’s Heineken Champions Cup last-16 first-leg at the Stadium de Toulouse.

As good as Ulster were at the Stade Marcel-Michelin – and they were very good in both opening up an early lead and then bouncing back after falling behind – this was not the all-powerful Clermont side that reached three Heineken Cup finals between 2013 and 2017, or won the Top 14 title in 2017.

Toulouse, however, are everything advertised. True, their recent results haven’t quite backed that up – six defeats in nine games isn’t exactly world-beating form – but when you provide 10 players to the French Grand Slam-winning squad, seven of whom start in the French city this afternoon, it’s never a bad endorsement of your talent.

Of course, in Cooney’s case, head-to-head challenges don’t come any harder than the reigning World Player of the Year and ever-present danger Antoine Dupont, who will both captain Toulouse and look to be their spark in their bid to defend their European crown.

“These European games in general, your preparation tends to be a bit better than usual. I think about the game a lot more in my free time, so it’s only natural that you’d be thinking about the player opposite you,” concedes Cooney.

“I’ve been watching a lot of [Dupont] during the Six Nations and I watched [Toulouse] at the weekend – we all know what he can do, he can create something out of nothing. I’m sure I’ll concentrate a bit more on what I can do for our team, and also what I can do to negate him whatever way I can.

“He’s playing unbelievable at the moment and he probably doesn’t have any weaknesses. He doesn’t get as many plaudits for his defensive game because his attack is so good, but even his kicking game… he kicks it a long way for such a small guy.

“We’ll concentrate on defending him the best we can but if we concentrate on him too much then we’ll probably leave space elsewhere. We’ll do what we usually do and stay within our systems, but if we can contain him a little bit more than other teams then that’ll be huge in getting a result.”

frances-antoine-dupont Dupont facing Ireland in this year's Six Nations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

But this is a chance for Ulster to really send out a statement to the rest of Europe themselves. The belief is they still aren’t quite in the upper echelons of European rugby, that if they come up against the likes of Leinster or Racing 92 (or perhaps even Toulouse?) that they will be overwhelmed.

But then the pool stage would suggest otherwise, home and away wins over both Clermont and Northampton Saints making them the only side to go four from four in Pool A, and Cooney insists they have learned lessons from last season’s disappointment in the latter stages of the Challenge Cup that are driving them on this time around.

Indeed, the second-half collapse at Welford Road in their semi-final against Leicester Tigers still haunts them. That is their motivating factor: not to feel that way again.

“That was a very difficult game to analyse after. It wasn’t dissimilar to that Connacht game at the Aviva, there was a similar feeling in the dressing room and in the team meetings afterwards, and I think that was a turning point for our season,” adds the 31-year-old.

“I think both of those games have been turning points for us and good learnings for a young squad. We learned to finish games better and I think we’ve done that twice already this season, beating Leinster and Clermont.

“I wouldn’t have said we had much of a dip at the end of last season, we just didn’t really close out that game against Leicester. If we’d won that, we could have won a trophy in Europe. I just don’t think we showed up in the second half of that game.

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“To see the young players coming in and getting more game time alongside the experienced players, I think any team would see an improvement in their performances. It’s a reflection of where we are in the league and where we are in Europe.”

So to Toulouse, then, and a chance to take a result back to Kingspan Stadium – potentially a lead – for next week’s second-leg. But perhaps more invitingly, a chance to really make your mark in Europe.

TOULOUSE 15. Thomas Ramos; 14. Juan Cruz Mallia, 13. Zack Holmes, 12. Pita Ahki, 11. Matthis Lebel; 10. Romain Ntamack, 9. Antoine Dupont (captain); 1. Rodrigue Neti, 2. Peato Mauvaka, 3. Dorian Aldegheri; 4. Richie Arnold, 5. Emmanuel Meafou; 6. Rynhardt Elstadt, 7. Thibaud Flament, 8. Francois Cros.

Replacements: 16. Guillaume Cramont, 17. Cyril Baille, 18. Charlie Faumuina, 19. Rory Arnold, 20. Anthony Jelonch, 21. Alban Placines, 22. Martin Page-Relo, 23. Sofiane Guitoune.

ULSTER: 15. Mike Lowry; 14. Robert Baloucoune, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Ben Moxham, 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney; 1. Eric O’Sullivan, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Marty Moore; 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Iain Henderson (captain); 6. Marcus Rea, 7. Nick Timoney, 8. Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: 16. Brad Roberts, 17. Andrew Warwick, 18. Tom O’Toole, 19. Kieran Treadwell, 20. Jordi Murphy, 21. Nathan Doak, 22. Luke Marshall, 23. Rob Lyttle.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

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