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Classy Cooney hammers home Six Nations claim as Ulster notch win away to Quins

The scrum-half provided 19 of Ulster’s points in a stunning display in London.

Harlequins 10

Ulster 34

ULSTER CONTINUED THEIR winning streak in the Heineken Champions Cup as scrum-half John Cooney hammered home his claims for a starting slot with Ireland in the Six Nations.

The 29-year-old was sensational once again for Dan McFarland’s side in a highly impressive bonus-point victory that means Ulster are four from four in Pool 3 so far, giving them a six-point lead at the top of the group before Clermont face Bath on Sunday.

john-cooney-scores-a-try Ulster celebrate John Cooney's first-half try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cooney finished a sweeping Ulster try on the stroke of half-time and added a superb second as the game approached the final quarter, once again showing his excellent footballing skills by nudging the ball along the ground before gathering and pulling off a stunning sidestep to finish. 

While scoring his sixth and seventh tries in all competitions this season, Cooney also prevented a Quins score in the second half with a brilliant try-saving tackle, while he was accurate off tee too, meaning he contributed 19 of Ulster’s points in total.

The latest demonstration of his class will surely have impressed new Ireland boss Andy Farrell, with incumbent Conor Murray’s position as the national team’s starting scrum-half now under more pressure than it has been for years. 

For Ulster, this excellent win on the road in London will have been very pleasing and they now head into the festive Pro14 derbies – Leinster away, Connacht at home, Munster at home – with their confidence high.

They can also look forward to their two remaining Champions Cup ties in January – away to Clermont and then at home against Bath – with real belief that they can seal a quarter-final spot for the second consecutive season under McFarland. 

As for Cooney, there is simply no ignoring his game-changing and game-defining form. He is playing with remarkable confidence and composure, with the game seemingly flowing his way at the moment. Farrell must be deeply impressed. 

john-cooney-takes-a-kick Cooney opened the scoring with a penalty. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster were first off the mark in the seventh minute here when Quins captain Kyle Sinckler failed to roll away after a Sean Reidy carry, with Cooney slotting the penalty.

McFarland’s side had two further chances to kick at goal with penalties as they dominated territory and possession in the opening 30 minutes but they went to the left corner on both occasions only to miss their opportunities as Kieran Treadwell and then Reidy knocked-on.

Marcell Coetzee’s ball-carrying was typically brutal but the home side – forced into an early reshuffled by injuries – defended strongly and then came alive in attack after sub back row James Chisholm won a turnover in their 22 and they broke out.

Suddenly, Sinckler was throwing passes and offloads like the playmaker he is, including one for a Stephan Lewies break only for the second row to spill the ball forward. The burst of Quins pressure told, however, as they milked a penalty from Ulster and centre James Lang popped it over for 3-3.

It looked like being a very frustrating half for Ulster until the very closing minutes, as Cooney forced a knock-on from Cadan Murley, handing the visitors a scrum on their own 22.

With Luke Marshall providing a screen ahead of the ball, out-half Billy Burns broke upfield from Stuart McCloskey’s pullback pass, scything between Quins centres Francis Saili and Murley before offloading to Ulster 15 Jacob Stockdale.

The Ireland international strode into the Quins half and did well to draw a tackle just as he passed to right wing Matt Faddes, who cleverly stepped back infield off the touchline and found Cooney on the end of a hard-working support line, sending him over to score.

john-cooney-scores-a-try Cooney crosses to score. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Cooney converted his own try and Ulster headed into the interval with a 10-3 advantage, and with the away fans already chanting the scrum-half’s name. 

The rain began to fall just before the second half got underway and Ross Chisholm’s spill of a Burns dink ahead gave Ulster a prime attacking scrum in the Quins 22, only for Luke Marshall to knock-on as they powered through their phase play.

Quins counter-attacked strongly from the turnover, with the impactful Semi Kunatani busting through weak tackle attempts from Treadwell and Ulster captain Iain Henderson before releasing fullback Chisholm. It looked as if Chisholm was going to sprint home but Cooney pulled off a superb try-saver he has dove to fell him, forcing a knock-on.

Ulster were soon down the other end showing a pleasing clinical streak as they attacked off a left-hand side lineout and McCloskey rolled a sublime grubber in behind the Quins defence for Marshall to regather and batter through Travis Ismaiel and Murley for a fine finish.

It was a delightful score for Ulster and the coaches’ celebrations would suggest it was one the northern province had picked out in their analysis beforehand or even during the first half.

Cooney’s conversion sent them 17-3 clear and put them in control as the rain kept coming.

luke-marshall-scores-a-try-despite-francis-saili Luke Marshall crossed to score. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was increasingly the Cooney show and he grabbed his second as the ball bobbled out of a ruck on the Quins 22 after another Coetzee carry, with the Ulster scrum-half reacting quickest to sprint forward, nudge the ball delicately with his right foot, then stoop to gather it before brilliantly stepping Chisholm to finish a quite wonderful score.

Again, Cooney converted but Quins did show some signs of life in the 62nd minute as replacement centre Paul Lasike steamrolled Burns – forcing him off for a HIA as a result – before Lewies came around the corner and finished from close-range off the front-foot ball, with Lang converting.

Frustratingly for Ulster, they threw into their lineouts crooked three times in a row – once from Rob Herring and twice by replacement Adam MccBurney – in the closing quarter as they chased the bonus point.

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But it finally arrived in the 76th minute as they gathered in a Quins overthrew and swept the ball wide to the right, where Faddes finished sharply after being teed up superbly by Stockdale. 

And sub tighthead Tom O’Toole put the icing on the cake with a strong finish in the closing minute for Ulster’s fifth try.

Harlequins scorers:

TriesStephan Lewies

ConversionsJames Lang [1 from 1]

PenaltiesJames Lang [1 from 1]

Ulster scorers:

TriesJohn Cooney [2], Luke Marshall, Matt Faddes, Tom O’Toole

ConversionsJohn Cooney [3 from 4], Bill Johnston [0 from 1]

PenaltiesJohn Cooney [1 from 1]

HARLEQUINS: Ross Chisholm; Vereniki Goneva, James Lang, Francis Saili (Paul Lasike ’60), Cadan Murley; Brett Herron (Travis Ismaiel ’22), Martin Landajo (Niall Saunders ’60); Santiago Garcia Botta (Nick Auterac ’55), Elia Elia (Jack Musk ’67), Kyle Sinckler (captain) (Simon Kerrod ’56); Stephan Lewies (Dino Lamb ’67), Tevita Cavubati; Will Evans (James Chisholm ’22), Semi Kunatani, Alex Dombrandt.

ULSTER: Jacob Stockdale; Matt Faddes, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik (Craig Gilroy ’74); Billy Burns (Bill Johnston ’63), John Cooney (David Shanahan ’77); Eric O’Sullivan (Andrew Warwick ’72), Rob Herring (Adam McBurney ’67), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole ’35); Kieran Treadwell (Alan O’Connor ’50), Iain Henderson (captain); Sean Reidy (Matthew Rea ’50), Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz [France].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Twickenham Stoop

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