John Cooney cuts a relaxed figure as he sits in front of a packed media room alongside his rival for the Ireland nine jersey Conor Murray.
The IRFU communications department threw a curveball to the gathered media when announcing that the duo, whose selection merits have dominated the narrative in the build-up to this Six Nations championship, were those who were selected for Monday’s media duties.
The pair seemed to enjoy the situation, batting away any vague suggestions that the competition between them goes anything beyond a friendly rivalry.
And that’s all it seems to be, a friendly jostling for that coveted nine shirt.
For you see, Cooney and Murray go way back. They were both in the U20 squad for the 2009 Six Nations championship. The opening game of that tournament was against France in Athlone, a match which Cooney doesn’t exactly have fond memories of.
“I was 19 and he [Murray] was 20,” Cooney recalled.
“Then I threw a pass over Ian Madigan’s head and got dropped the next week!”
“Well, Ian Madigan is quite short,” Murray interjects.
Cooney added: “It actually worked out alright but then I went for a drop-goal, from scrum-half, missed it and that was the end of it. I was kinda playing a year young so…It was France. I think we still got the penalty, I missed the drop-goal off the back of the scrum.”
Two highly talented scrum-halves with massive potential, their paths diverged into two very different directions thereafter.
A little over two years after that game, Murray announced himself to the world at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. While that tournament was taking place, Cooney was back in Swansea making his senior debut for Leinster against the Ospreys.
Over a decade after they were rivals in Allen Clarke’s U20s squad, they’re competing with one another again under the guise of Andy Farrell.
Cooney admits that the Limerick man’s progression and achievements in the game have continually provided a source of motivation.
“It wouldn’t have been that strange. I knew he was going to do great things. It definitely gave me more drive to see how well how he had done and it probably took me a bit longer to get there. It was probably something good, I could see that it was attainable down the line and I could learn a lot from him.”
The Dubliner added:
“We still picked each other’s brains last and week and it is reflective of him – for all the stuff he has done in his career and to still be so approachable. There is no ego with him in terms he will listen to exactly what you say and whether you have a point. He listens really well. So as a player I think that shows a lot of respect from him that he is so approachable and wants to learn about the game.”
Leinster didn’t work out for Cooney, like many players who come through their famed Academy system, they have to look for opportunities elsewhere due to the immense level of competition. Matt O’Connor taking over from Joe Schmidt signalled the end of Cooney’s time in blue but he explains that it was with his next club, Connacht, where he really developed his exciting style of play under the guidance of Pat Lam.
“Where have I been? It’s a good question. I think the reason why I am where I am is due to those couple of years where I’ve learned a lot about myself and had to grind out in Connacht for a couple of years. In those couple of years, I think I had three shoulder surgeries.”
Cooney continued: “I was lucky enough to be there the year we won the league and to have Pat Lam. He was a brilliant coach and he probably started to instil that confidence in me that I probably needed at the time. It was different under Matt O’Connor at Leinster. It’s the way it works, sometimes coaches come in and you don’t fit into their plans and that’s kind of what happened to me. Under Pat Lam, he kind of gave me that confidence back.
“Even in terms of goal-kicking, I was never a kicker and he gave me an opportunity to do that and encouraged me to keep doing it so I started doing things like that, adding different parts to my game and I haven’t really looked back yet.
“So he was definitely brilliant for me in terms of that and getting that more New Zealand style of play, trying to run those support lines is something he actively coached us and you can see it happen a lot with the scrum-halves at Connacht.”
Even in the last 12 months, Cooney’s mindset has changed. This time last year, the 29-year-old made three appearances in the 2019 Six Nations but only for a total of 34 minutes. He admits that during that time he was just happy to be receiving more caps whereas this time around, the environment is allowing him to be more of himself, which results in better personal performances and ultimately, putting real pressure on the man he shared a dressing room with back in 2009.
“Last year I probably didn’t put myself under more pressure to try and get more game time and I was kind of happy just to come on and get whatever because I didn’t have too many caps at the time. And you’re kind of happy just to get what you can.
“Whereas this year, I’m going to keep going back to what I said in the summer, I’m going to be happy in myself, happy in my environment and that’s generally going to get me to play my best. And I’m here to try to do that, play my best, whether it is 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes off the bench or starting, it doesn’t really matter, it’s how I play and to be part of the collective – we keep talking about it – and the tough team we want to be, you’re going to have to do what you need to for the team and whether that’s on the bench or a starter, that doesn’t really matter.”
Farrell will name his team to face Wales at 1:50 pm this afternoon, whether Cooney is wearing the nine shirt or the 21 shirt, it’s no matter. He’s performing with a smile on his face and that’s good enough for him.