Ulster v Racing 92: Preparation is everything insists Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney

Ulster's s''John Cooney
Ulster's s''John Cooney

The way Ireland players are made to prepare for games has trickled down to the current Ulster squad revealed scrumhalf John Cooney this week.

As Ulster get ready for their biggest challenge of the season to date - a home European Champions Cup pool tie against Racing 92 - Cooney has said they will be well prepared to meet the challenges the Top 14 side will pose.

Ulster lie in second place in Pool Four, five points behind the unbeaten Racing, with both targeting a place in the knockout stages.

Knowing the opposition and who individuals are facing in big games is now something which is expected of the matchday panel explained Cooney.

“It is something that has trickled down from the Irish team where you seem to know every single player you are playing every single week,” he said.

“You nearly know what step people have, left or right, what side they kick off and we have those snippets in our computers at the moment.

“So it is important when you get to the game in that Finn Russell might dummy late, little things like that.

“Even the people running the second team, or the Wildings as we call it, so they even understand.

“I noticed that Johnny Stewart was looking at computers at what number 8 Antonie Classen does for them, so it is a huge squad effort in the preparation for a game.

“It is good to see people that might not be picked week-in, week-out looking at their players,” he added.

Ulster historically perform well against French opposition at home. In a similar position last season, La Rochelle came to Belfast and were toppled although the Irish Province then contrived to flop in their last pool game and missed out on making the knockout stages.

But this is a different season, with different players and an almost new backroom in place, and the new group have shown continued signs of making strides forward in spite of ‘limited’ sides losing back-to-back Guinness PRO14 away Irish derbies to Connacht and Leinster in the past fortnight.

Ulster showed what they are capable of when they picked up a maximum 10 match points in the back-to-back pool games against Scarlets last month.

“That was hugely important for us,” said Irish scrumhalf Cooney.

“It gave us the momentum we needed to put it (qualification) back into our own hands.

“It’s a position you want to be in. We would love a home quarter-final so have to try and get the win in this game, and then whatever happens, happens.”

Racing can secure top spot in the pool by winning in Belfast on Saturday afternoon, but they also have the security of knowing they can still achieve that if they win their final pool game at home against Scarlets a week later - Ulster going to Leicester Tigers.

In terms of this weekend, Cooney went on: “This is a hugely important game for us. We have been targeting this game for the last few weeks and we understand the importance of this game at home.

“Where we are sitting in this group it is a hugely important game and we know we always seem to get these big performances at home.

“Last season against La Rochelle we had a huge performance against a big pack and it will be pretty similar to this game this year.”

Although Racing’s last defeat in Europe came in the final last year against Leinster, they have dropped off the pace in Top 14 slightly.

“It it important for us to start well and that is something we have not done that well this season,” said Cooney.

“We know that in the last 20-40 minutes all season we have been really powerful and strong in those minutes.

“Dan (McFarland) showed us a picture this week when Ulster had started with a huge tempo in the first 15 minutes against Toulouse a few seasons ago and it showed their players bent over and tried and the Ulster players standing up strong.

“That was quite similar against La Rochelle last year where we started with that tempo and they struggled a little in the game - and it all adds up.

“It is important we do that this wee and move the contact and play those wide edges,” added Cooney.