John Cooney has admitted that he is unsure of what Ireland head coach Andy Farrell wants from him in order to get back into the national team.
Cooney won his first cap for Ireland against Japan in June 2017 after spending two seasons with Connacht, but his career really kicked off when he joined Ulster in September that year.
The Dubliner quickly established himself as the first-choice scrum-half for the northern province, and when Ireland’s form dipped significantly in 2019 after a wildly successful 2018, many called for Cooney to replace the out-of-sorts Conor Murray as the country’s first-choice scrum-half.
Although Cooney did make four appearances for Ireland off the bench in that year’s Six Nations, the Ulster scrum-half missed out on the Rugby World Cup squad, as Murray and Luke McGrath were chosen ahead of him.
After Ireland’s disappointing World Cup campaign there were again calls for Cooney to be given more opportunities for the national team, but the Ulster scrum-half remained behind Murray in the pecking order, although he did come off the bench in the first three Six Nations games in 2020.
However, Cooney hasn’t played for Ireland since that third round 2020 Six Nations match, which came just before the covid-enforced break.
Cooney was speaking as a ‘Tackle Your Feelings‘ ambassador for Zurich and Rugby Players Ireland and touched on his frustrations with missing out on Ireland selection after lockdown.
— RugbyPlayersIreland (@RugbyPlayersIRE) July 13, 2021
‘I thought I deserved a chance.’
“I don’t think I came on the right side of any selection calls anyway. It was obviously disappointing coming back after lockdown, obviously I was in the form of my career before that and maybe that’s the problem,” Cooney said.
“Maybe people were comparing myself to the player that hadn’t had a six month break and I probably pushed myself a bit too hard.
“I had an Achilles injury in pre-season which set me back a little bit and then yeah, trying to catch up with everything then, I was a little bit slow. Generally in every season I have played it takes me a couple of games to get going anyway.
“In a way I could comprehend the first selection in that I probably hadn’t played as well as I had the season before and not starting that final for Ulster was a real blow for me, which then kind of compounded the call with Ireland so it was a tough couple of weeks, a tough couple of months.
“I was happy with how I performed off the back of that and I think I did have a really good season. I actually think my season last season was nearly better than the season before, in terms of [being] a team player.
“I think I had the most assists in the league and it was an onus that I had on myself, to make other players around me look good. So I was really happy with that.
“So as a team player I think it was an even better season, so I was very disappointed not to make the Six Nations squad. I thought I was playing well and I thought I deserved a chance.
“For this recent selection I was injured, I’m injured with my neck at the moment so I had a chat with Andy [Farrell] and he just said to keep at it. So I don’t know was I in or not, but I’m just concentrating on myself now and getting back from the injury and starting next season proper.”
John Cooney was left without any answers from Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
While Farrell has told Cooney to keep doing what he is doing, the 31-year-old revealed that the Ireland head coach hasn’t given him any specific pointers on how to improve.
Cooney admitted that the lack of answers over what is causing him to miss out on selection is frustrating for him, but he is happy about the progress he has made on the pitch since then.
“That was kind of the issue I left the last selection for the Six Nations with. I kind of left without any answers and that was difficult for me, because I didn’t know what I was meant to work on,” Cooney explained.
“The next week we had to go down and train against them with Ulster, so that was difficult. But I was given the option of doing it or not and I thought I would go down, hold my head high and train well against them.
“So yeah, I didn’t really get many answers. I’ve always put a big emphasis on just looking after myself and playing the way I want to play. As I said, things that I probably didn’t do as well the season before, I think I did really well last year.
“I think it’s probably the best I’ve defended since I’ve had these three shoulder surgeries, so I was really happy with the leadership I showed in terms of our defence. I organised a lot of it, so it’s definitely something that I could have been told to work on that I think I have. I try to be self-aware in realising the things I need to get better at. ”
‘I would prefer him to just tell me what I need to do.’
While Cooney has been in touch with Farrell recently, he doesn’t feel as if he has been given more answers than he was after Ireland’s 2020 Six Nations campaign.
The 31-year-old admitted that he used to avoid frank conversations about his performances in the past, but has since seen their value, especially with Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
While he is aware that it is up to him to work on his own faults, he said he would like more clarity from Farrell on how to work his way back into the Ireland set-up again.
“We talked on the phone recently and I felt I didn’t really get [clarity] again, so maybe we’re not on as good terms as we would have been a year ago. I’m the type of guy that I can accept if he’s going to be honest with me, and I would prefer him to just tell me what I need to do,” Cooney said.
“I’ve had these discussions with Dan [McFarland], and I’d prefer to have it out with a coach rather than tip-toeing around, because that’s something that I probably did early in my career with Matt O’Connor, and I realise that sometimes you have to have those hard conversations and get that feedback that you need.
“When Ulster trained against Ireland, I remember [Ireland skills coach] Richie Murphy rang me after and he gave me a little bit of feedback. But I took everything he told me on board, and I did all of the things he told me to do, so like I said, I don’t know whether I was going to be in the squad this summer or not but I feel I did everything that was asked of me.
“In that way I can hold my head high. Even I got called into the squad twice and trained away with them. One was the France game that I was meant to start again, so it was quite difficult for me to go down, but I got on with it, I did exactly what they said.
“So as I said I can hold my head high and everything that I have been asked to do the last couple of years, I’ve done it, so I’m proud of that.”
John Cooney on sticking to his style of play.
While Cooney has been playing at a very high level for a number of years now, his fast-paced style of play isn’t what the Ireland coaching staff have looked for in recent years.
In this year’s Six Nations Farrell opted for Conor Murray and Jamison Gibson-Park as his two first-choice scrum-halves, both of whom employ a more conservative style of play than Cooney, in which box kicks are a major feature.
While a Conor Murray-style number nine has been clearly preferred by successive Ireland coaching teams for the last decade, Cooney will not entertain the idea of changing his style to more closely align with the British and Irish Lions captain .
“It would be a bit conflicting with my personality to be honest [to try to become more like Murray]. I’m happy with how I’ve been playing for the last couple of years,” Cooney commented.
“I think I’ve been up there as one of the best scrum-halves in the country. I do think I do a lot of things very similar to him. The last season I put a big emphasis on my box-kicking and I think it’s the best I’ve ever box-kicked.
“I think we had the best percentage of kick-return in all of Europe, so I was happy with that and it was probably a part of our game that we really drove last season.
“I think I can compete with him on that level and also distribution. I like the way I play. I like to play fast, I like to run support lines, I have a massive emphasis on speed, and I want to be that player that can score from 50/60 metres out, I was always competitive with the wingers.
“So even now in my 30s I still really try to push and try hit top speed as quick as I can. I’m happy with how I’ve been going and I like that style of taking a lot of control. When I played soccer that was how I used to play. I used to love getting on the ball, being in those moments to try and win games.
“I think since I started goal-kicking it kind of gave me that connection to football that I had, that love of football when I was younger. Ever since I’ve done that, I feel like the more control in games I’ve gotten, the more I’ve grown into games and the better I’ve gotten as a rugby player.”