Returning John Cooney now firmly rooted in Ulster

When Ruan Pienaar left Ulster in the summer, reluctantly and tearfully, supporters feared a void at scrum-half.

Returning John Cooney now firmly rooted in Ulster

Whether John Cooney, battling to unseat Kieron Marmion in Connacht, realised just what a challenge he faced to win over Kingspan Stadium supporters, he’s not saying, but he’ll start against his former club, at The Sportsground, this evening, safe in the knowledge that he’s firmly established as a fans’ favourite and with much of his team’s run of form attributable to his standout displays.

“It’ll be great to be back in Galway. It wasn’t easy leaving. It was a matter of head over heart,” he said. “I’ve really settled in and, I have to say, to hear an Ulster crowd singing and cheering you on is very special. Hopefully, we can give the supporters who’ve made the trip, or are watching on TV, something more to sing about with a win and crucial points in the Guinness PRO14.”

Cooney departed The Sportsground viewing his new, Belfast home as an opportunity to press his international ambitions to challenge Marmion, Munster’s Conor Murray, and Leinster’s Luke McGrath for the green jersey.

“I knew Ruan’s were big boots to fill, but when Ulster came calling, last year, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Cooney, who’s been a revelation as a first-class pivot and reliable kicker. That, like the Springbok, he can also line out at No.10, is a sign of his gifts, which may yet be deployed this season, when Australian playmaker, Christian Leali’ifano, returns home next month, after a superb loan spell.

Cooney’s 27 points in last weekend’s Champions Cup thumping of Harlequins, in Belfast, was headline-making. But his calm authority, in regular partnership with Leali’ifano, another summer recruit, demonstrated that he’d found a club where his ambitions could be realised.

“I got off to a decent start with Ulster, and was happy with the way my game was developing and with the way Christian and I hit it off,” says the Dublin native, who’ll have Peter Nelson outside him tonight. “But the priority is how well the team performs and the results we get. If anything comes along with Ireland, it’s a bonus.”

He’s had his injury woes to contend with, going under the knife three times for a shoulder problem, which is, thankfully, now vanquished.

Nurtured in his native Leinster, he made his debut in September, 2011, but regular rugby was difficult to get, as Isaac Boss and McGrath rotated at the RDS, though he can look back on his time there with some pride, coming on as a replacement to win the Heineken Cup a year later, in the 42-14 defeat of his present employers.

Cooney is an example of the growing tendency for players to more comfortably make the move within Ireland to satisfy the desire for first-team rugby. In 2014, he and lock, Quinn Roux, went on loan to Connacht, the scrum-half deciding to stay on a more permanent deal.

“Kieron is a great scrum-half, and it will be fun playing against him tonight. I know I made the right decision, though, in moving on”, says Cooney.

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