OPINION: Ireland reward the next natural step off John Cooney’s sparkling Ulster form

With Ireland squad camps coming up over the festive period as the attention on the international front starts to turn towards another Six Nations championship, there will be much focus on how new head coach Andy Farrell will sweep the new brush.

By Richard Mulligan
Monday, 16th December 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 31st January 2020, 9:31 am
Ulster's John Cooney. Pic by INPHO.
Ulster's John Cooney. Pic by INPHO.

Farrell has stepped up from defence coach to replace Joe Schmidt and while the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater, there is an expectation that Farrell will look to make his mark.

Obviously on the back of a World Cup year, the Six Nations for all the home nations is one of potential rebuilding and looking to the next installment in 2023.

This could be an opportunity for the new Irish coaching set-up to give an opportunity to some on the periphery or who did not make Japan 2019 and perhaps should have. Farrell has to forget about reputation and go with form.

One name on the list should be Ulster scrum half John Cooney, who has been in inspirational form for the Irish Province, not just since the start of the new season, but most of last term as well,

Having made the move from Leinster to Connacht, he was forced to play second fiddle to Kieran Marmion and the opportunity to move North and join Ulster, after Ruan Pienaar’s departure, came at the right time and he quickly showed his potential and the chance to challenge for an Irish place.

Included in Schmidt’s extended Irish squad for the Rugby World Cup, he was one of four scrum halves which included Conor Murray, Marmion and Luke McGrath. Cooney looked almost certain to add to his international caps and squeeze one of the latter two out for a place on the plan to Japan, but instead he was to be left disappointed and cut in August.

It was a bitter blow for the 27-year-old, but it allowed him time to get stuck in with Ulster and he has started in 10 of the 11 games to date with some impressive performances.

With the focus on the European Champions Cup in recent weeks - four ties in five weeks - Cooney has simply been on a Euro spree in the four Pool Three games to date - Ulster topping Pool Three and one of less than a handful of sides to boost a 100 percent record to date.

Looking across the Provinces, if Ireland were selecting their side to face Scotland in a Six Nations opener today, Cooney would have to be the starting scrum half.

There are some who will argue that the debate could perhaps be settled in Belfast on January 3 when Ulster and Munster face-off at Kingspan Stadium in the last of the Guinness PRO14 Irish derbies - but certainly when it comes to the squad for the Six Nations, Cooney must be included.

Cooney was the catalyst behind Ulster’s latest European success, a 34-10 bonus point win at Twickenham Stoop over Harlequins.

A week earlier the scrum half kicked the match-winning securing penalty in the closing minutes to give the Irish Province a 25-24 win over the English Premiership side. On Friday night he scored two tries, kicked three conversions and a penalty.

And he also made a crucial try-saving tackle on Quins fullback Ross Chisholm early in the second half when the score was 10-3.

Cooney also ensured Ulster went into the break with that advantage when he showed a piece of individual brilliance to weave his way in for a try which he converted.

Those different acts either side of the break were crucial to Ulster pressing on and taking the win - Cooney again showing unbelievable skill to take an offload from battering ram Marcell Coetzee, drop it on his foot, grubber kick through and dot down.

Crucially for Ulster, these are not just flash-in-the-pan, he has been doing it consistently and importantly in Europe.

While there were no tries in the previous meeting with Quins in Belfast he kicked two penalties and two conversions.

In the opener against Bath at The Rec, it was a try, two conversions and a penalty and at home against Clermont, there was another try, with two penalties and conversion.

There is really not much else he can do to stake his claim further in terms of international recognition - Andy Farrell will surely have been watching.

Meanwhile, Ulster’s perfect start to the European Cup has kept them right on track to reach the quarter-finals, and while they still have two games to go, scary as it is to say it, a last-eight place is definitively there - they need three match points to be certain.

Few expect them to defeat Clermont away - that game on January 11 in France is a potential decider on who comes top of the pool - but they should certainly be up to the challenge to see a disinterested Bath off at home in the final game on January 18 in Belfast..

Picking up a first try scoring bonus point in London on Friday night was critical and they now go into that meeting against Clermont top of the pool by a point.

There are permutations still to consider, but two wins would obviously send Ulster through as pool winners - the only downside potentially being as fifth seeds and an away day in the quarters.

Runners-up in the pool would present them with an away quarter-final, but if they can avoid Leinster at that stage, anything is possible.

Away from Pool Three, one to watch is defending champions Saracens. They could potentially sneak through as the eighth seed still, a nasty surprise in the waiting for the top-ranked qualifier.

For Ulster now the focus turns back to the PRO14 and three festive Irish derbies starting with a daunting trip to Lenister - who became the first club to qualify for European quarter-finals after just four rounds - this Friday night.

Expect lots of changes to the side Ulster put out, the focus as usual over this period will be on the home games against Connacht and Munster which follow.

All that before the return to Europe for the final pool hit outs - there is just no let up!