"When I was struggling, I knew I was doing it for more than me" - John Cooney
"I like your stance. It looks like you're trying to chat me up!"
John Cooney misses nothing. He can spot from a country mile off that I don't usually conduct interviews standing up and leaning against a door-frame.
Locked in the front room of a house with three young children prowling the corridors with mischievousness intent, I am immediately envious of Cooney and his lockdown set-up.
Cooney is up in Belfast with his girlfriend Claire and their dog, Bonnie. He is keeping on top of his fitness, using the local golf course for his runs and, after this Zoom interview is over, getting back to the course for 18 holes. He dabbles infrequently with golf but the course is next door and it is one of the first sports allowed back - the worse you are off the tee, the better the opportunities for social distancing.
"I live right beside the course so I've got my running done in there. I was doing 60 and 80 metre runs up and down the fairways. Since then I've got the keys to Malone (Rugby Club) so I've been able to lock myself in there to do my kicking and trick shots in peace. That's all that matters - I get my trick shots done and then I pretend I've done my running and go home!"
Cooney jokes about his trick-shots but they really are part of his kicking routine. It was thanks to his brother, he knew the kicking talent was there, who encouraged him to add that element to his game.
He enjoys the kicking process and talks me through his mind-set when he approaches the tee.
"Due to injuries at Connacht," he says, "I got the chance and never looked back. I did that through learning about golfers and how they deal with the pressure of it all; how they perceive the psychology of golf. That helped me and, essentially, I thought myself how to kick and here I am!
"I'm a little bit different to other kickers, and it's probably something that I play up to. It's different to when you've been coached it from a young age, and sometimes you can be over-coached. Whereas I started it and I called it a hobby. I know it pisses off coaches, and still can at the moment.
"If I miss, I'd say, 'Ah sure, it's only a hobby'. I know it's more than a hobby - it's a career - but, in a way, it is just a hobby. I enjoy doing it and that mindset has made me able to deal with those kicks that I've missed a little bit better. It does make me enjoy it, because if I don't feel good, I won't kick.
"For some kickers, they're adamant that they must do hours and hours. For me, I often find that less is more. I don't struggle with the striking aspect of kicking the ball. It's more the concentration aspect and being in the moment. Sometimes the more I kick, the worse I get. We're all different. I know what works for me. Bill Johnston at Ulster is an unbelievable kicker but he's the polar opposite to me. He's real regimented whereas I might go out in training, kick six, miss four and just pick up the tee, walking off saying, 'You don't kick it on a Tuesday... Friday's for kicking'. Whatever works for you."
The Ulster and Ireland scrumhalf is always seeking to improve himself and have been hungrily getting through books and podcasts (Matt Fraser and Robin van Persie) during the pandemic-enforced break in the rugby season. Claire has even set up a mindfulness space on the landing, replete with candles, a beanbag and a mini Buddha. He goes there to take time out for himself or to pore through some pages.
Speaking with me as he gets behind the Tackle Your Feelings #ImTakingControl campaign, Cooney is hopeful that the 2019/20 rugby season can be completed, in some manner, before we all move into an entirely different campaign for 2020/21.
He seemed destined for a long Leinster career when he broke into the senior squad in 2011 and appeared as a sub in the province's 2012 Heineken Cup final win over Ulster. He was tipping along nicely under Joe Schmidt but was cast aside by Matt O'Connor when he took over the reigns at Leinster.
Connacht - first on loan then in a permanent move - was his refuge but Ulster has been his home now for the past three seasons. Before rugby took this elongated break, he was up there with Antoine Dupont as Europe's form No.9.
The 'Take Control' campaign has afforded him the opportunity to think back to the 2016/17 season, when he was coming back from his third shoulder surgery and wondering if his chance to play for Ireland had passed him by. Cooney was seeing a counsellor at the time and he recalls her sage advice to train 'as if I was an Irish international'.
The change in mindset paid off as he finished the season strong and won his first Ireland cap in the summer of 2017. His second cap came 12 months later but they were the first steps on a road that has now led to 11 Test outings. He was in line to start against Italy in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations when the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that. When rugby resumes, he is ready to prove himself all over again.
"Sometimes when I look back, I'm not too sure where I got that competitiveness or that want to prove people wrong. I was lucky that my mum and my family were all there and did a lot for me. Having that figure there, who supported me and was there for me sat in the back in my head, so when I was struggling, there was more to it than just myself. There were other people that I was working for.
"I've always been somebody that has found it easy to work really hard. Maybe it's the drive of trying to do it for them, and remembering their sacrifices for me, that has been what has pushed me on and why I never gave up."
After recently turning 30, Cooney journal-ed to himself and set out goals for the next couple of years ahead. Getting more games in for Ireland and making that Lions tour to South Africa are on the list but so is surfing, a trip to Biarritz and hitting the ground running for Ulster.
"I've watched a few Ulster games back," he adds."I was so bored that I thought I'd go back and watch our games from this season. It's got me back up for playing.
"Watching some of those old games makes me realise how much I miss it. I don't miss the training aspect as much but the playing is the fun part."
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