So John Cooney is back, although Iain Henderson says he was never away. In fact, not for one second was the much-travelled scrum-half mentally marked absent during the week when he encountered his first setback as an Ulsterman.
Since replacing the irreplaceable Ruan Pienaar three years ago Cooney has been Ulster’s MVP, until last week that is.
A poor return to post-lockdown rugby meant he found himself behind wily Kiwi Alby Mathewson in the pecking order to start the PRO14 final against Leinster. But Cooney, who has at various times recovered from disappointments with Leinster, Connacht and Ireland, is nothing if not resilient.
A trait he will no doubt want to show again when he starts tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse.
“‘Coons’ reads a lot of books and listens to a lot of podcasts on mental resilience and making sure you stay on top of your own mental performance. He knows exactly what to do,” says Henderson.
“Cooney’s been in and out of squads, he’s been dropped, he’s switched teams and thankfully I think we’ve had the best version of John Cooney there’s ever been.
“He didn’t drop that in training last week even though he knew he was on the bench, and he knew that from the start of the week, his mentality was still the same.
“He was still out doing his kicks after training. He could easily have sacked that off and said he was feeling a bit down that day, but he still went through his week’s work the way he usually would.
“It was great to see, and it gave a lot of guys encouragement. Other players did that too. Kieran Treadwell last week had an incredible week training.
“There were times in years gone by when players were dropped and you would have put a line through their names in training because they barely would have showed up. But the positive reaction we get off guys having something negative done to them is brilliant.”
Turning a negative into a positive is not just an aspiration for Cooney but the entire Ulster camp when they step out at the Stade Ernest-Wallon tomorrow.
They took a step forward with that dramatic PRO14 semi-final win over Edinburgh two weeks ago, becoming only the second club to win an away semi-final, but the momentum evaporated with another heavy final defeat by Leinster.
Now they have to pick up the pace again, comforted in part by the knowledge they beat Toulouse home and away when they last met in back-to-back pool games in December 2015. However Ulster are without a win in France since, and Toulouse have won their last eight European games at home.
Along with Cooney, three players return in the pack — Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, and Nick Timoney — while Toulouse have recalled Joe Tekori and Cyril Baille, who missed last week’s win over La Rochelle, to boost an already massive pack.
With Tekori back at lock, All Blacks legend Jerome Kaino, a double World Cup winner, returns to his favoured position at blindside.
Henderson can’t wait.
“He’s an absolutely incredible player, there’s no two ways about it. He’s incredibly experienced and he’s very happy to lace up the boots year on year.
“He has a real edge about him, a real desire to win those battles week in, week out, which he’s continuing to do and rightly so, he should continue to play when he’s doing that.
“He’ll potentially cause problems for us around the breakdown and bringing his general experience to the team.
“It’s exciting, their whole team has many big names through it, but that’s just going to add excitement to the whole day.” Toulouse’s South African wing Cheslin Kolbe is another of those big names, along with the classy Dupont-Ntamack half-back pairing, but Henderson has to believe Ulster belong in this company.
“We deserve to be in the quarter-final, we have earned the right to take them on.
“We’ve got the backline to cause them some trouble, and hopefully we have the pack to produce ball for the back line.
“We want to score points. It’s in Dwayne Peel’s attacking mindset to score points and play a good fast-flowing game with plenty of offloads, taking edges when they’re on and playing a good kicking game.
“I think it would be a bit silly if we said we didn’t want to score points, to be honest.
“We definitely take confidence in that, but we also have to be wary of how many points they can score.”
Henderson’s brother has taken to wearing an old Toulouse jersey lately, to remind the Ulster skipper of the glorious past enjoyed by the four-time champions.
“I don’t remember any specific games but they are one of those big names in France that have always been there and their trophy record shows that, and shows how high esteem they should be held. That’s something that goes with them. But as I keep saying, that will just add to the event and make things even more special.”