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“I Was Going To Come Back And Make Them Regret Not Picking Me”

John Cooney

For many, this enforced period of lockdown provides an opportunity for looking back, reflection and growth.

For Ulster and Ireland’s John Cooney, there are no shortage of memories or experiences to mull over and dissect.

To say Cooney’s career has had its ups and downs would be an understatement but the 30-year-old Dubliner has certainly experienced the euphoric highs and devastating lows which life as a professional rugby player can throw at you.

Cooney is an ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings, an initiative from Rugby Players Ireland, which encourages people to ‘Take Control’ of their mental well-being.

John Cooney
Tackle Your Feelings Ambassador John Cooney

The scrum-half has had his fair share of challenges in the past but those experiences and lessons have led him to this point, being the form number nine in the country before COVID-19 put a halt on the current season.

Cooney has had many obstacles to overcome throughout his career. When he began his career at Leinster, where he played under Joe Schmidt and Matt O’Connor, he needed to make a big decision on his playing future which led to travelling west to play for Connacht.

“Early in my career, if I made a mistake in a game, that would hinder me for the rest of it,” Cooney tells Pundit Arena.

John Cooney
John Cooney and Brian O’Driscoll in 2013

“It was difficult in Leinster at the time because if you did make a mistake, you probably wouldn’t play again.

“So that would be going through my head and just realising that was not going to make me play better. I started dealing better with that, even in training, making mistakes, it happens. Just getting your head around how you deal with all that type of stuff. The more I learned, the better I felt.”

This learning which Cooney describes is revolved around psychology and stoicism, an area which Cooney is continually developing his knowledge. It has helped him deal with the blows he has received throughout his career, most notably the three shoulder surgeries he underwent, the third of which occuring during his time at his new club, Connacht.

John Cooney
John Cooney and Kieran Marmion with Connacht in 2017

“I think I was quite naive. I knew it was my third and it’s not ideal to have two on the same shoulder. I dislocated that and broken it, so I’ve done a bit of damage to it. So my whole thing was just to get back, get through the rehab, I was lucky to have people close to me, my family and stuff, who were really supportive and got me through it. Also, to have good people around me in terms of the Connacht squad who drove me each day, the fitness coaches and also the players around me.

“At the time you kind of get through it, I don’t know how, I don’t know where the drive comes from. I just wanted to get back playing after the season (2016) before where we (Connacht) won the league. It’s tough when you see everyone back playing and you’re there doing your rehab or you’re sitting on a watt bike for a couple of hours a day. I always have the niggling tone in the back of my head with ‘that can’t be it, I need to get back and prove myself right’.”

John Cooney
Tackle Your Feelings Ambassador John Cooney

And he certainly proved himself. Cooney’s form has been excellent in the three seasons he has been with Ulster. In his debut season, he won Ulster Player of the Year, the Supporters Club Player of the Year and the Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year.

However, this form never fully translated into the recognition he would have hoped to have received at international level.

Thus far, Cooney has made just one start for his country with the remainder of his 10 caps coming from the bench. There was shock in many quarters when the 30-year-old missed out on the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad but as he recalls, it only fuelled his desire to bring his game to another level.

John Cooney
John Cooney after Ireland’s defeat to England at Twickenham this year

“Obviously, I was disappointed with that, getting dropped, but I told myself I was going to come back and make them regret not picking me and I was going to come back and be the best version of myself.”

Cooney’s career is a very good example of the benefits of moving provinces. The scrum-half was behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss when he was at Leinster but the journey of going from Leinster to Connacht and onto Ulster has certainly benefited him – his form and the caps he has earned during that time are a testament to that.

The scrum-half says he would encourage any player to make the move to a rival province if they feel that it would benefit their career, his case is a perfect example of that.

John Cooney
Joe Schmidt and John Cooney

With a flurry of interprovincial signings announced in recent weeks, it seems that many young players are determined to fulfill their potential, even if that means looking for pastures new.

“I think a player has to be selfish in that regard, they have to do what they need to do to get to where they want to go. Obviously, a lot of them would prefer to stay in their home province but if they see that path as the right path for them to go on, I think it’s important that they take it.

“I think it’s easy that they get stuck behind somebody and a lot of the circumstances aren’t even in your control. You could be behind three lads who play for the next four or five years. With me, I had Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss who played until they were 36 I’m pretty sure, so there was me thinking that I would get an opportunity and that didn’t happen.

John Cooney
Tackle Your Feelings Ambassador John Cooney

“I would encourage them that if they think that’s the right decision for them. For me, I wrote out the pros and cons of whether I should stay in Connacht or come to Ulster. It was a really difficult decision because I loved it there but on paper, it was just obvious that ‘here’s an opportunity for me to get to where I wanted to go’.

“After that, I never looked back and I never regretted it.”


Ireland and Ulster Rugby Player and Tackle Your Feelings ambassador, John Cooney has today shared his story of how in challenging times setting goals and working towards them helps him Take Control, a powerful message in these uncertain times.

Tackle Your Feelings was launched by Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich Ireland in 2016 and is funded by the Z Zurich Foundation. Today John was on hand to lend his support to the #ImTakingControl campaign which encourages people to ‘Take Control’ of their mental wellbeing using principles from both sport and positive psychology.

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Author: Sean McMahon

Sean is Deputy Editor and head rugby writer. You can contact him by email or on Twitter