John Cooney: I was sick of being a spectator at Connacht and appreciating the efforts of others
When John Cooney signed for Ulster last year he said he had ambitions to play international rugby and he might fulfill those aspirations on Ireland's summer tour of Australia next month.
Cooney arrived in Belfast last summer as Connacht's second-choice scrum-half and he finished his first season in the Northern Irish capital on Sunday as the Ulster Player of the Year, the Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club Player of the Year and the Rugby Writers' Player of the Year. Not a bad year for the Dubliner.
Cooney has enjoyed a fantastic campaign for the northern province and Ulster’s end of season awards ultimately justified his switch from Galway to Belfast.
“I’ve reflected it on a few times and you have certain coaches doubting you over the times and I think that really drove me," said the 28-year-old.
“Some people have seen me at my lowest and it’s nice to get those awards at the end of the season. In my speech I said that last season at the Connacht awards I was sick of being a spectator and just sick of appreciating other people’s efforts so this season was going to be different.
"You can say whatever, but it did mean a lot to me, and it was one of my goals at the start of the season and it’s nice to have a goal and tick it off."
With Ulster's spot in next season's Champions Cup confirmed after a 35-17 win over the Ospreys on Sunday Cooney had some time to reflect on a season that ranks as the best campaign of his professional career.
Ulster's pool stage win over La Rochelle in January was his favourite moment of the season, while the win over Harlequins in the snow reminded him of harsher days with worst weather conditions at Connacht, but it was not the awards or the victories that he was most proud of from his debut campaign at Ravenhill, it was the perseverance he showed to get from where he once was at Connacht, to where he is now with Ulster and where he could be going next month with Ireland that has brought him the most satisfaction.
“I’m very happy with how the season has gone but I’ve said it before, to be honest, I’ll be happier about the times when it wasn’t going well but I stuck with it and made a tough decision throughout my last three seasons," added Cooney.
“I dislocated my shoulder two seasons ago and nearly tore it again there. They’re the times I’m proudest of.
“I’m proudest at not giving up when times are tough so I’m happy with how the season has gone but next season is another game.
“Sport is fickle and in the words of Kobe Bryant 'there’s always another level' so I better come back next season.”
Time will tell if Cooney has another level to go to as a player but Ulster certainly have another step that they can take as a club next season.
The province have not made the Champions Cup knockout stages since 2014 but Cooney thinks that if they can maintain their end-of-season continuity and consistency, and continue to develop good habits while under pressure, they'll be a lot closer to achieving their goals next season.
“If you took that Connacht team that won it [2016 PRO12 title] no one would say they were the best team on paper, the brand of rugby they played that season they really took it to everyone and the academy really performed well so it is not about those 15 individuals; it’s about 30/35 people who you are going to use.
“It’s about building those habits and getting into the game time where you are under the cosh and you just develop good habits.
"It is hard with two coaches leaving and I think we have finally got into our gears with Jono and it is disappointing he is leaving but with Dan [McFarland] getting his time I think we’ll be very good."
On McFarland's appointment, Cooney said: "I don’t think I said many words to him in Connacht, he must have presented well because it was Joe [Schmidt] that selected him. He did some seriously good work at Connacht and I’d say he was really disappointed to leave after we won.
"He’s a quality coach and if you do something wrong he’ll go through you and that is what Ulster needs.”
Cooney said that he was hopeful that Ireland and Joe Schmidt would need him on next month's tour of Australia but that if he isn't selected he won't get too upset or annoyed that he was overlooked.
After all, a holiday to Thailand is planned if there's no seat for him on the plane to Australia.
There's always another level to go to as an athlete but there's always other countries you can visit if you're deemed surplus to requirements by your national team.
Thailand is supposed to be lovely at this time of the year but given the season that Cooney has had he deserves to be in Brisbane next month and not Bangkok.