There was a collective smile among the gathered journalists at the IRFU’s High-Performance Centre in Abbotstown when it was confirmed that Conor Murray and John Cooney would be up for interview – together.
Of course, the subject of these two players and their current form has dominated newspapers and sports websites alike with many being of the opinion that Cooney should be ahead of Murray in the pecking order.
During Saturday’s win over Scotland, Murray was replaced by Cooney in the 59th minute and the in-form Ulster scrum-half was straight into the action with a delightful box-kick over the top of the Scottish defence which bobbled into touch.
The debate will soon take another twist when Andy Farrell announces his team on Tuesday for Saturday’s clash with Wales.
Will he keep Murray or give Cooney his first Six Nations start? We’ll find out tomorrow but the duo were in fine form on Monday afternoon as they faced the inevitable opening question.
“Is this awkward, lads?”
“No, no,” Murray said.
“We’ve already been slagged,” Cooney quipped.
Murray added: “Ye make it awkward. We’re all good!”
For Cooney, you would understand if he was disappointed not to start the opening game against Scotland considering his form this season for the northern province but he explained how he’s in a better space this year considering his inclusion in the squad is based on his form rather than injury-enforced as it may have had been in the past.
“No, it wasn’t [tough to be on the bench] to be honest because I just saw that I was in a much better position than I was this time last year when I probably got into the squad on the back of a couple of injuries. So I was facilitating for the team and it was important coming on – I hadn’t subbed too often this year with Ulster – for me to perform and just ease into the team whenever I could so I was happy with the 20 minutes I got.”
Although players don’t like to admit it, it’s inevitable that outside talk and opinions will eventually infiltrate their thoughts but Murray says that although he is aware of the clamour for Cooney to start, he hasn’t found it difficult to deal with.
“Not difficult. It’s all credit to John. He is having an unbelievable season and you respect that. As soon as he came into camp it’s about Ireland. Everyone wants to start, Lukey [Luke McGrath] involved as well, but as a group of three, we are all working together and trying to figure this out together and put us into the best position to perform.
“I got the nod last weekend and John and Luke were really good to me in terms of analysis and just chats here and there. It does add a bit in terms of motivation. You want to put in a performance. People start writing you off and things like that so naturally there was a bit of that there but in our position having a calm head is probably one of the most important things you could do so trying to balance that was the challenge.”
And on Cooney’s performance, the Limerick man continued to be diplomatic.
“Really good. He came on and added to the game, had a lovely kick in behind their defence to push us up the pitch towards the end of the game, especially in a tight game like that. It was pretty much what we needed. He has been playing really well all year and continue that on Saturday.”
It’s clear that Cooney and Murray are close off the pitch. The duo came up through the ranks at the same time and were both on the Ireland side during the 2009 U20 Six Nations.
Cooney’s response to wearing the 21 shirt on Saturday is admirable and he reveals that he’s working hard on developing a fresh frame of mind when it comes to what many would consider to be a major disappointment.
“Yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve worked on over the last few years. Obviously, I’ve had to go the road less travelled – I’ve used that term before – I’ve struggled with injuries and it’s something I’ve learnt.
“I get slagged a lot for reading a lot of books, ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ (by Ryan Halliday) is a book I’ve read. It discusses that it’s the way you see your circumstances and how you react.
“You can go one of two ways and in the summer I told myself I was going to go the other way, try to improve myself personally and try and be in the position I am right now. It’s something you actively have to work on, I learnt to cut down on the overtraining aspect of it. You think you have to train more and more sometimes, but I’ve learnt now psychologically you can get a lot more from that aspect of the game.
“I think, yeah, it’s how you react to circumstances for me.”