Investec Champions Cup: Pool 2 – Ulster v Toulouse
Location: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday, 13 January Start: 20:00 GMT
Access: Listen to BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Sounds, the BBC Sport website and program from 19:30 GMT, with the latest updates, reports & news available on the BBC Sport website & programme.
There was a time when John Cooney struggled to believe that his playing days for Ireland were behind him.
With three appearances off the bench in the 2020 Six Nations, Cooney appeared firmly in Andy Farrell’s mind at the start of England’s reign.
Then the plague struck and Test rugby, like everything else, came to a standstill.
By the time Ireland resumed playing, nearly eight months later, Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park had emerged. The Auckland-born scrum-half replaced Cooney on the bench for Ireland’s win over Italy.
Cooney has not played for Ireland since.
For a while, Cooney struggled to understand why he was out in the cold. Now, however, he is said to have acknowledged the problems that led to the demise of his Test career.
“I’d be honest and say I was sore for a while,” the 33-year-old told BBC Sport Northern Ireland.
“I always compare myself to the other nine and go to countless games and shows thinking I should be there.
“But it is what it is. I’ve really enjoyed it here and I’ve always been back to represent Ulster, to play the best rugby I can.
“I feel like after I did that and when I left and focused on it, I played my best rugby and maybe I became a teammate and a team player.
“I helped Ireland in the World Cup. Maybe before I would have been a bit bitter but I was very happy with the way they played. Like everyone in the country I was behind them and I wanted them to win.
“After the Scotland game I saw it was a win for Ireland, so I put it aside. [I’m] support for Ireland.”
After making his Test debut against Japan in 2017, Cooney played 11 times for Ireland, his last appearance coming in a defeat to England in February 2020, just weeks before the outbreak.
When he reflects on what happened four years ago, Cooney says it was “a very bad time” and a good opportunity for disaster.
“I can sleep on it,” he insists.
“What are the problems of the global epidemic that are happening to me? For a long time I suffered a lot after Covid, when you did not leave your house it was difficult, in all my work I was going out some. part of it.
“I’ve had a couple of bad shoulder surgeries, a neck injury that I’ve learned a lot by enduring. I would never change it.
“It made me who I am and represented my family and friends. I think when they look at me they see someone who is resilient so that’s important.”
Although he was open to a gradual integration with the rest of the world, Cooney would not have been persuaded if he had asked that Irish advisers not be considered for nomination.
“I can’t comment on that,” smiled the Dubliner, who last year refused to block Scotland’s devolution after signing a new Ulster deal in April.
“I’ll keep it to myself. It’s hard for me to say the least and I find it very difficult. The place where I was happy and where I felt safe was here, putting this team.
“That was my goal at the time and I didn’t want to use power outside of that.”
In the meantime, Cooney will be using his energy to focus on the most difficult time in Ulster’s European campaign with big games against Toulouse and Harlequins over the next two weekends.
Ulster breathed new life into their season last month with wins over Racing, Connacht and Leinster after a three game losing streak.
Saturday night sees five-time Champions Cup winners Toulouse in Belfast as Cooney could face French giants Antoine Dupont.
Having taken one point clear of the French giants before picking up a rare win in Leinster, Ulster will be confident of avenging their last-16 defeat in Toulouse in April 2022.
Asked for the biggest reason for Ulster’s dramatic turnaround in fortunes of late, Cooney admitted it was the club’s “desperation” to realize their potential after a string of minor league games against Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bath.
“We discussed this issue that week [of the Racing game]said Cooney, who has been with Ulster since joining Connacht in 2017.
“We wanted to get a result. Maybe even try. A couple of games, we didn’t play as well as we could have and Racing just came back.
“If you look at individual efforts and the desire of the team, when your back is against the wall and you want something, you go back to desire, the amount of work and so on.
“We’ve got a lot at the moment and we’ve come out on the other side of a couple of close results, winning the last two by one point and I think that’s fired up the crowd and the team.”