"It's disappointing but a world-wide pandemic, what the hell?!" - John Cooney
When you are war-gaming and coming up with best- and worst-case scenarios, even the most over-stimulated of us would not reckon on a global pandemic.
John Cooney was all set to get the Ireland No.9 jersey that so many had been calling before, but fate had different plans.
Cooney is a man for goal-setting. For listing things to be grateful for and things to target. For mapping out mountains to climb.
After the crushing disappointment of missing out on Ireland's World Cup squad, last August, Cooney brushed himself down and returned to Ulster Rugby. All he could control was what was within his power. He determined to have an even better season than his impressive 2018/19 and to help Ulster any way he could.
The former Leinster and Connacht scrumhalf delivered time and again for Dan McFarland's men and entered the 2020 Guinness Six Nations right up there with Antoine Dupont (Toulouse & France) as Europe's form 9.
Andy Farrell injected some fresh blood into the squad he inherited from former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt but Cooney was forced to bide his time as Conor Murray started against Scotland and Wales. When England swept Ireland aside at Twickenham, it was widely expected that Cooney would get a starting chance against Italy, only for the Coronavirus outbreak to reach into Europe and force a postponement of the match.
During Cooney's interview with Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble on Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby [from 25:20 below], the 29-year-old opened up about destiny' latest swerve job.
TRIMBLE: You must have been thinking, if the Italy game had’ve gone ahead, that would have been a good opportunity for you to get a start.
COONEY: Yeah, I’d put that down [on my list], obviously. It is disappointing but a world-wide pandemic, what the hell? You’re not going to expect something like that. It’s a pretty valid reason for a game not to go ahead, so feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to do much, to be honest.
TRIMBLE: Is that what Farrell said to you? ‘Listen, I’d love to start you this weekend but there’s a worldwide pandemic’!
COONEY: Yeah, basically!
2019/20 was another improvement on a series of steadily arcing seasons for Cooney. He was on fire in the Champions Cup and most weekends either saw him or Marcell Coetzee bag the man-of-the-match accolades.
The Dubliner says it is tough to answer whether the latest Six Nations campaign was more frustrating - especially as many fans and pundits were crying out for him to start for Ireland - but he always tries to take the positives.
"Going back to the way I review and look at things I’ve learned, I was in a much better position to where I was a year before. I felt, the year, before that I had played four of the five Six Nations games but I felt I was nearly getting picked just due to injuries. So I felt, firstly, that I had earned my spot. That made me feel pretty good, from the hard work I’d put in. Secondly, when I saw that or reviewed it, that getting annoyed or getting disappointed wasn’t really going to better me or make me play better off the bench.
"I was disappointed and I obviously wanted to start, but when I looked at it from that point of view, I was pretty happy with where I had gone in a year. And even the disappointment of the summer and not making the World Cup squad… obviously that was a massive low for me. So for me to bounce back and get to where I planned to get to, and made goals to get to, when I was able to view it that way, I was pretty happy with where I got to."
For Cooney, returning to Ulster - and a familiar, supportive community - meant the world to him after his World Cup heartache. "It's a place that I love getting back to," he says.
"In the summer, it was like that again. In a weird way, I was happy to get back to the province that I enjoy playing with, and all my friends. Stuff like that. I think that’s why I came back playing well, or hit the ground running quite early. Because I was in an atmosphere or an environment that I really enjoyed.
"When you’re in the international set-up, sometimes it can be a lot of stress, but I told myself after that disappointment that I was just going to be myself, and whatever works for me works for me. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I said I was going to enjoy what I’m doing and that’s basically when you get your best self.
"I learned that years ago when I moved to Connacht on loan, and I ended up staying there because I really enjoyed the environment. So that’s what I told myself in the summer. Obviously, those six, seven weeks of Irish camp, I didn’t get to play as much as I (wanted). I think the more I play, the better I play, because I get that continuity. So I was looking forward to getting back."
Cooney is now hopeful that Ulster can, in some manner or future date, get to finish the 2019/20 season. When the season was put on ice - due to the Coronavirus pandemic - the northern province was looking set for a Guinness PRO14 playoff place and they had a Champions Cup quarter final date with Toulouse.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen," says Cooney. "It doesn’t look likely at the moment but it would be great for us, because in the position we’ve been in all year we’ve been going well. So I was very optimistic with us, in Europe and the PRO14, of how we could do.
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are back together (but staying apart) as they host the latest House of Rugby from their houses. The lads are joined by Ulster and Ireland scrumhalf John Cooney. They talk about staying positive during wild times, the pay deferral agreement made between Rugby Players Ireland and the IRFU, and chat movies too.