John Cooney continues to inspire Ulster and is just the fuel injection Ireland need for Six Nations challenge

Ulster's John Cooney scores a try against Munster
Ulster's John Cooney scores a try against Munster
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Ulster at Clermont Auvergne in a crunch European Champions Cup tie - an upset in France is certainly not beyond the Irish Province given their current impressive run of form.

Few would have been tipping Dan McFarland’s side of going to Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday for their penultimate Pool Three clash and seeing off the Top 14 side in their own backyard.

The reality is, based on the past six weeks at least, that current pool three leaders, Ulster have the potential to head to France and produce a performance that gives them the result they need which could well see them secure top spot in the group and a home quarter-final.

Let’s forget the permutations of try and losing bonus points. With Bath to come to Belfast a week later, any result which has an Ulster victory to it should be enough to see them secure their goal when the English side come a calling.

Personally I think Ulster have to go for broke in France. If all the front line players are available, then get them out there, Dan, this is too big an opportunity to be passed over.

The confidence Ulster would take from a win in France - it is not a rare occasion as Montpellier, Castres, Oyannax and Toulouse will testify to in most recent terms - but a victory in Clermont is still not on the stats.

But to beat one of the sides with strong aspirations on being European champions - and I would certainly not be writing them off - a victory over Clermont and getting a home tie in Belfast would be absolutely massive for Ulster. It would also continue the upward curve of progress at the club.

There is not one side still in contention in Europe who would want to come to Kingspan Stadium for a quarter-final tie.

With four from four already in Europe, and then picking up 11 points out of a possible 15 in their Irish derby fixtures, Ulster have grown in confidence week by week as they saw 2019 out with a bang and brought 2020 in with a roar.

In spite of scoring six tries in Dublin, they still came second best to a Leinster side simply marching ever onwards to more silverware.

Connacht - the last side to win in Belfast in October 2018 - have continued to punch above their weight, but Ulster put them on their backsides in convincing style - even with a malfunctioning lineout - as they scored five tries to register more bonus points this season that they had done in the previous to close out 2019.

The big test was to come from McFarland’s charges, a fully loaded Munster side back in Belfast to kick-off the New Year.

It was a contest for a while, but Ulster soon took control and scored five tries as they romped to a 38-17 success and stretched that unbeaten home run to 19 matches.

There is no doubt Munster are in the doldrums currently - they lost a 21-match unbeaten home record to Leinster a week earlier - but they are going through what Ulster went through two years ago.

It is hard to believe the Red Province go to France this weekend needing to beat Racing 92 to give themselves a glimmer of hope of qualifying while the white shirts of Ulster go to Clermont in control of their own destiny and even in defeat the door is not slammed shut in their faces.

Times are indeed a-changing in Irish Rugby.

And that is the case on the international front as well with new head coach Andy Farrell and his selectors getting the best opportunity they could to look over the hopefuls for the Six Nations squad ahead of the Championship start on the first weekend of February.

Ireland open with a home game against Scotland and then face last season’s Grand Slam champions, Wales - again at the Aviva Stadium before meeting per- tournament favourites England in Twickenham.

Coming off the back of a poor Six Nations Championship campaign last year and a hugely disappointing World Cup in Japan, if Farrell is not prepared to make changes, then the Irish will limp through this championship and battle for probably a third place finish.

However, if Farrell and his new coaching staff are prepared to ditch the ‘tried and tested’ Joe Schmidt era in favour of a new game plan and approach, then February 23 is the pivotal date for Ireland when they meet Eddie Jones’ World Cup finalists.

If things go according to plan, it sets up a potential Triple Crown success for Farrell, and then talk of a Grand Slam can be whispered even with a visit to Paris on the cards in the final game of the Championship!

There is also the next World Cup to consider, although it is probably not the most important thing on Farrell’s mind in his first year as the top man.

Certainly, thoughts of who will be wearing the shirt in France in 2023 which be considered, but the new broom does not need to be too broad going into this Six Nations championship.

But there still needs to be changes and fresh faces are available, ready and willing.

If the omission of Rob Kearney from the training panel over the festive period was a guide then Farrell is prepared to give others an opportunity.

Will Addison - so badly missed at the World Cup - is one Ulster player you feel has a strong shout for the 15 jersey, with Leinster’s Jordan Larmour another rightly in the mix.

The most talked about positions are half-backs. Munster’s Conor Murray has been the guardian of the number 9 shirt, but injury has limited his time on the domestic front this season.

John Cooney, left out of the World Cup panel in spite of an impressive season for Ulster, has seen his opportunity and boy has he grasped it. He has been the general for the Province this season, scoring tries for fun and if the Irish derbies are still seen as ‘trials’ then Farrell will have him down as his starting scrum half against Scotland on February 1.

Murray, however, showed against Ulster that he still rules the box kicking area and while he misses the flair currently displayed so consistently by Cooney, he delivers the basics - which brings us back to the ‘tried and tested v something different’ for Farrell decision.

Cooney’s form has to count for something and a ninth Irish cap is surely just reward on February 1.

Jonathan Sexton is more than likely to get the nod at outhalf again. Can Ireland afford to nurse him through another campaign? Should Joey Carberry be given the opportunity in the number 10 shirt and Sexton deputise? Why not?

Moving to the pack and the coalface, with Rory Best gone as both captain and hooker, it provides an opportunity for Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher to stake a claim for the starting number two spot, his stablemate Sean Cronin will hope that he is still in the mix, but Niall Scannell and Rob Herring are already, and have been for a while, ahead of him.

Just a couple of pointers to mull over as the Six Nations draws closer - Farrell and his team will certainly have their heads around it all given the end of the derby clashes, but two big European weekends to come could still provide opportunity for players to catch the eye.

I for one am looking forward to the trip to France on the weekend.