Cooney points way north for ex-Le­in­ster team-mates

Eight for­mer Blues will be on Ul­ster’s pay­roll when Moore and Mur­phy ar­rive

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gavin Cum­miskey

The needs of Ir­ish rugby tend to dif­fer from what Le­in­ster want. This ar­ti­cle tracks the wind­ing roads of Ul­ster’s five Dublin­ers be­fore David Nu­ci­fora’s master plan is fur­ther em­braced by Jordi Mur­phy and Marty Moore sam­pling some Belfast liv­ing this sum­mer.

Fac­tor in academy lock Jack Re­gan, of Of­faly hurl­ing stock, and soon enough there should be eight Le­in­ster men on Ul­ster’s pay­roll. It’s fur­ther ev­i­dence of Le­in­ster tal­ent plug­ging gap­ing holes in the other prov­inces.

Of course Mur­phy and Moore are mov­ing north for ca­reer rea­sons but, in­ad­ver­tently, they are break­ing bar­ri­ers.

“He had some be­liefs that were wrong,” said John Cooney be­fore Mur­phy signed for Ul­ster. “I just told him it was a good place, it’s only two hours up the way and I had the same with Gal­way – you just lis­ten to pod­casts, au­dio books and it’s not that hard to drive two hours, for me it’s quite easy now. He’ll be close to home.”

This list of non-Ul­ster reared Ir­ish play­ers – ex­clud­ing pro­ject play­ers like the con­stantly dis­ap­point­ing Rod­ney Ah You – be­gins with Cooney’s in­stant suc­cess story. No­body could have pre­dicted his con­tri­bu­tion of 119 points over 15 ap­pear­ances.

Cooney, like many be­fore and since, was de­nied the chance to be­come Le­in­ster’s pri­mary scrumhalf by tim­ing (in con­trast, Luke Mc­Grath prof­ited from Eoin Red­dan and Isaac Boss re­tir­ing for vary­ing rea­sons last sum­mer).

Hoped-for break­through

Cooney is the op­po­site of in­stant suc­cess. Al­ready 27, and de­spite see­ing out the 2012 Heineken Cup fi­nal de­feat of Ul­ster at Twick­en­ham, Le­in­ster only played him 27 times over four sea­sons be­fore a hoped-for break­through with Con­nacht was blocked by Kieran Marmion.

So Cooney did some­thing ground­break­ing, and log­i­cal, by ven­tur­ing north. The stigma at­tached to this move needed shred­ding. Many Le­in­ster play­ers had pre­vi­ously re­jected the Belfast op­tion be­cause of pre­con­ceived per­cep­tions.

“It all de­pends on the type of per­son,” said Cooney late last year. “I don’t think it mat­ters that I’m not from Ul­ster. I care just as much about play­ing for Ul­ster as I did for Le­in­ster.”

Sounds so sim­ple, like any pro­fes­sional, but it has taken a full gen­er­a­tion of ar­guably wasted al­ter­na­tive tal­ent for this at­ti­tude to take hold.

Cooney wasn’t wanted by Ul­ster. Cer­tainly not as their start­ing scrumhalf. That was to con­tinue be­ing Ruan Pien­aar un­til Nu­ci­fora firmly pre­sented one op­tion: spe­cial­ist po­si­tions need Ir­ish play­ers in them in all four prov­inces. That edict is pay­ing off far bet­ter than any­one ex­pected.

Le­in­ster and Con­nacht failed to fully grasp Cooney was a place kicker be­cause they didn’t need one as des­per­ately as Ul­ster did once Paddy Jack­son was ruled out. Op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor Bryn Cun­ning­ham is back in the mar­ket for an out­half as Chris­tian Leali­ifano re­turns to Aus­tralia af­ter the Wasps game on Jan­uary 21st.

Le­in­ster will hardly al­low Ross Byrne or Joey Carbery to even tem­po­rar­ily fill that void but oth­er­wise move­ment be­tween prov­inces is fluid now. On New Year’s Day for­mer Spring­bok Jean Dey­sel was flanked by Nick Ti­money and Greg Jones. Le­in­ster boys, cur­rently Ul­ster men. Ti­money, who cap­tained a Black­rock side with Carbery and redi­rected Mun­ster for­wards Conor Oliver and Jeremy Lough­man to Le­in­ster Schools Cup glory in 2014, made a stir­ring de­but against the Dragons in Septem­ber.

Rapid tran­si­tion

This fol­lowed two sea­sons Ti­money bal­anced Ire­land Sev­ens duty with try­ing to get no­ticed play­ing for Ban­bridge in the AIL.

Jones only en­tered the Ul­ster sys­tem this sea­son but, like Max Dee­gan his team­mate on the Ire­land U-20s side that reached the 2016 World Cup fi­nal, he has made a rapid tran­si­tion into the pro­fes­sional game.

Jono Gibbes, for­merly Le­in­ster for­wards coach, also ar­rived in Belfast last sum­mer and pro­moted these academy flankers.

Le­in­ster took Dee­gan along with Josh Mur­phy, Will Con­nors and Cae­len Doris over Ti­money, Jones and oth­ers but that de­ci­sion is no longer the be-all and end -all. Not to Ti­money, not to Jones.

And there are oth­ers. For­mer Belvedere Col­lege scrumhalf Dave Shana­han is on an Ul­ster de­vel­op­ment con­tract and Cork flanker Clive Ross, cousin of Mike, ar­rived in Belfast via Lans­downe in 2014.

You just lis­ten to pod­casts, au­dio books and it’s not that hard to drive two hours

That Alan O’Con­nor was re­jected by Le­in­ster is not with­out a dose of irony on see­ing who was picked in­stead. Just be­fore board­ing the plane to Cape Town for the 2012 Ju­nior World Cup, the Sk­er­ries lock was told Black­rock and Clon­gowes play­ers had snatched his pro­fes­sional deal.

“They said they were go­ing to take one young lad Gavin Thornbury, out of school, and Tadhg Beirne,” O’Con­nor said in 2016.

‘Re­ally gut­ted’

Granted, Thornbury (now with Con­nacht via New Zealand) was 6ft 8in while Beirne (en route to Mun­ster af­ter shin­ing for the Scar­lets) was keep­ing O’Con­nor off the Ire­land U-20s team.

“I was re­ally gut­ted by the whole thing. I thought I was def­i­nitely go­ing to get in. I know I wasn’t get­ting picked for the Ir­ish 20s at that stage but be­fore that all the feed­back was very pos­i­tive about the whole thing. Then it was: ‘We’re not tak­ing you but if you have a great World Cup you’ll be re­con­sid­ered.’”

Ire­land beat South Africa thanks to a mon­u­men­tal per­for­mance from Iain Hen­der­son, with O’Con­nor com­ing off the bench for Beirne, as JJ Han­ra­han kicked the lights out. Allen Clarke, then Ire­land un­der-20s coach, took him to Ul­ster on an academy con­tract. Some 51 caps later, he is keep­ing Hen­der­son on the blind­side for big Euro­pean days as Kieran Tread­well grows into his lock­ing frame.

In­ci­den­tally, O’Con­nor’s brother, David, skipped a sim­i­lar youths path­way by en­ter­ing Black­rock to play on Ti­money’s cup-win­ning sides but af­ter two sea­sons with the Le­in­ster academy, un­til this sum­mer, he is back play­ing AIL for St Mary’s.

There are bet­ter places to go, this much is clear, but club rugby isn’t the end of the line ei­ther. A vir­tu­ous cir­cle, with Le­in­ster at its core, ex­ists for now.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRIAN LIT­TLE/INPHO

John Cooney: “I care just as much about play­ing for Ul­ster as I did for Le­in­ster”

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