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Cooney not the only Ulster player pushing for Six Nations shot under Farrell

The likes of Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey and Rob Herring are also putting their hands up.
Jan 6th 2020, 4:10 PM 25,439 35

AS JOHN COONEY stepped back inside Keith Earls to finish a superb Ulster try on kick return on Friday night at Kingspan Stadium, Conor Murray wasn’t too far away.

One has to wonder what the Munster scrum-half was thinking as his rival for Ireland’s number nine jersey scampered clear for his eighth try of the season.

Murray’s ability to remain calm under pressure is one of his key strengths but there must have been a brief burst of concern as Cooney once again delivered a standout moment for Ulster.

john-cooney-with-fans-after-the-game Cooney is in superb form for Ulster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Munster man has essentially never been under as much pressure for his place, with his consistent form for province and country having made him a must-pick for what seems like forever. 

Now, Cooney is breathing down his neck while other scrum-halves like Leinster’s Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park and Connacht’s Caolin Blade are ensuring that the previous gap between Murray and the rest has closed up. 

Writing Murray off would be foolish but Cooney is doing his very best to pose new Ireland boss Andy Farrell a demanding question. 

Murray hasn’t been as poor as some would suggest – he had moments of major quality against Ulster last weekend as well as a handful of errors. And Cooney hasn’t been quite as perfect as some of the deserved praise might indicate – he made errors last weekend as well as delivering more eye-catching dollops of brilliance.

But it’s certainly a welcome situation for Farrell and it’s hard to see how the Ulster man won’t get his chance in green.

Cooney isn’t the only Ulster player putting his hand up for involvement against Scotland in Ireland’s opening Six Nations fixture, with Farrell set to name his first-ever matchday 23 in just over three weeks’ time on 28 January in Portugal, where Ireland will have a pre-championship training camp.

Will Addison, having regained full fitness and then spent four weeks on the sideline through suspension, looks in the best physical condition he’s been in perhaps since moving to Ulster from Sale Sharks in 2018.

The 27-year-old is an intelligent, skillful, incisive, and creative presence from fullback while it has been extremely notable that he has upped his physicality in recent weeks – very much hinting that Farrell has been pressing for improvement from him in that area.

irelands-will-addison Addison is fit and in form. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While Jordan Larmour has certainly excelled with Leinster, Addison is doing his best to convince Farrell that he deserves the first shot in Ireland’s number 15 shirt in what could be the post-Rob Kearney era.

Also up for grabs in the wake of Rory Best’s retirement is Ireland’s number two jersey and Ulster’s Rob Herring has been superb this season in taking over at provincial level, ensuring he has a good chance of doing the same in green.

While Ulster have had some lineout issues, including last weekend, Herring’s throwing has not always been at fault. There is much more to the lineout than the hooker’s throw and Ulster have had intermittent issues with calling, movement, and lifting.

While Herring is not completely faultless here, Ulster have a 87% success rate on his throw, which compares favourably with Leinster’s Rónan Kelleher at 89% and Munster’s Niall Scannell on 85% so far this season.

Herring has brought notably dynamism and aggression around the pitch for his province in the current campaign, while also offering relatively fluid handling ability. Like Addison and Cooney, he is in the mix for a Six Nations start.

Ulster’s lineout caller, Iain Henderson, will have had frustrations last weekend but he too delivered some impressive moments of aggression against Munster – which Farrell will push him to bring consistently as Henderson aims to continue his locking partnership with James Ryan in the green jersey.

Perhaps as encouraging as anything for Farell on the Ulster front has been the sight of Jacob Stockdale’s growing form. The 23-year-old was clearly delighted to bag his first Ulster try in nearly a year against Munster in a performance that also featured real physicality in defence. Ireland will hope to see Stockdale click back into his 2018 Test form in the coming months.

Among the nine Ulster players involved in Farrell’s 45-player stocktake last month was centre Stuart McCloskey.

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stuart-mccloskey McCloskey has three Ireland caps to his name. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The 27-year-old was frustrated to win just three Ireland caps under Joe Schmidt but his current momentum makes him a contender to feature in the upcoming Six Nations, even with the amount of competition in midfield. A physically imposing and powerful presence, McCloskey can also pass and offload, while his defensive decision-making continues to improve. Furthermore, he poses a turnover threat at the breakdown.

McCloskey has benefited from the solidity and calm of Luke Marshall in Ulster’s 13 shirt, although Marshall is coming from even further back in the Ireland pecking order.

Ulster’s Irish-qualified out-half Billy Burns is also helping to prompt the best from McCloskey, who has even been gathering one or two of the playmaker’s consistently accurate cross-field kicks. Burns, who joined from Gloucester in 2018, was also part of the Ireland camp last month and still has real scope for further growth at the age of 25.

Tighthead prop Marty Moore surely took delight in being back in an Ireland training squad off the back of his good form, which has featured an ever-increasing work-rate and an appetite for big defensive hits, while 21-year-old Tom O’Toole’s potential was recognised with his involvement as Farrell looked to the future.

The Ireland boss opted for just two looseheads last month in the shape of Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne – though Andrew Porter can switch back across if required – but Ulster’s pair of Jack McGrath and Eric O’Sullivan have been making their cases with their province.

A Lion and 56-times capped Ireland international, McGrath is looking fit and hungry after his move north from Leinster last summer, while 24-year-old O’Sullivan is one of the most skillful front rows in the country.

Jordi Murphy missed out on the Ireland stocktake before a two-week break from playing like the rest of last year’s World Cup squad. The back row would have been frustrated to then miss last weekend’s clash with Munster due to illness. Murphy will hope to prosper in Europe in the next two weekends in order to convince Farrell to see things differently.

Meanwhile, Ulster boss Dan McFarland will be enthused to see others like Sean Reidy, Matty Rea, Alan O’Connor and Robert Baloucoune showing their quality this season, even if they are not in the international picture at present.

There is little doubting, however, that many Ulstermen are impressing Farrell.

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Murray Kinsella

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