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'Getting That First Kick Vs England Was Huge. 8 Years Ago I Couldn’t Kick For My AIL Team'

'Getting That First Kick Vs England Was Huge. 8 Years Ago I Couldn’t Kick For My AIL Team'
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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Like most, John Cooney has had ups and downs during this unprecedented time in our lives.

The first fortnight of lockdown was enjoyable with time off from training after Ireland's Six Nations campaign was cut short due to the Covid-19 emergency.

Now, he'd just like to get back to playing games. The Ulster scrum-half spent the early days of solo training doing laps of a Belfast golf course. He also practised goal kicking there, using trees as posts. That stopped when someone had a word. He now has the keys to Malone Rugby Club.

"I had started putting together a gym in my garage," the Ulster player says on a Wednesday morning Zoom call to promote Tackle Your Feelings.

"I've been able to lift heavy weights because I have a good bit in there, rather than lads with 20kg dumbells at home trying to squat with them. I've a spin bike I can jump on as well.

"If anything, I'm probably staying fitter than I was before. A lot of it is vanity, I want to try and stay in good shape!"

Staying motivated has been tough. Particularly on Monday morning. He got out of bed at 10:30 planning on doing absolutely nothing. He watched a video by former American college football player turned motivational speaker Inky Johnson and soon had four sets of 10 runs done on the golf course along with a gym session.



Personally navigating this situation should be a trip to the shops compared the arduous injury journey which he endured during his time with Connacht.

In the 2016 Pro12 final against Leinster, a game which Connacht famously won, Cooney injured his shoulder and would require surgery on it for the third time.

"It was disheartening," he says.


"I'd gone to Connacht on loan originally and done pretty well but I'd just come back from my first shoulder surgery and then I got a foothold in the squad, was playing well, had another surgery on my shoulder, got back into the squad for the [2016 Pro12] semis, played in the final and dislocated it again.

"I didn't realise the damage I'd done to my shoulder. I was at four months [of rehab], I couldn't even bench 60kg and I was meant to be back playing.

"I just remember losing it with the physio - it was nothing to do with him, it wasn't his fault - but I just couldn't understand how I couldn't bench 60kg and I was meant to be back playing rugby.


"I know he contacted the surgeon and the surgeon said it was one of the worst shoulder surgeries he's seen. I'd essentially torn the shoulder out of the socket, I'd broken all the clavicle. My old surgery had fallen out of my shoulder basically.

"That managed my expectations, and after that, I went down the line of, 'Will I actually get back from this?' That was the lowest moment for me.

"Weirdly enough, I just went back to something as simple as stretching three or four times a day. Then I slowly got the range back which got me up to benching 60kg which then turned into me getting back. I just remember that being a very tough time where it went from me hoping to get back to me wondering if this would be the end of my career.


"That was when I went to see a counsellor as well. Not just for that, it was for my day-to-day happiness because outside of sport, you have issues as well. My sister suggested it to me. I went through Rugby Players Ireland - they funded the first six sessions. That sent me down the path of psychology and understanding myself.

"People say how my career has flown over the last couple of seasons, I'd look back and think that I'm not that much of a better rugby player than I was before. I think I've become a lot smarter in understanding myself, taking control of myself. That's huge. I was always a player that prided myself on being the hardest working or the fittest. A lot of injuries come through wear and tear and that's probably what I was struggling with through the early part of my career.

"Now I understand that instead of maybe going for that run or doing that extra gym session, I might just sit back and do a bit of mindfulness or use the Tackle Your Feelings app, just to get what I want from that day. I understand that sometimes less can be more."

Ulster and Ireland player John Cooney discusses the mentality which has turned him into an international player

Ireland and Ulster Rugby Player and Tackle Your Feelings ambassador, John Cooney, has today shared his story of how in challenging times setting goals and working towards them helps him Take Control, a powerful message in these uncertain times. Picture credit: Press Eye Photography

To this day, partially owing to a bolt which the surgeon installed, the 30-year-old doesn't have a full range of movement in his shoulder.


"I can’t do shoulder presses," he says.

"I struggle to do chin-ups and I can’t even get my arm back really but it is bolted in place and it has given me no issues since so it’s not too bad.

"I find if I don’t do gym for a week it tightens up loads and my bench press will fly down so there’s certain things I have to stay on top of and try to make sure I rehab it a lot.

"Sometimes I get the odd stinger because it goes into my neck. I had one against Clermont, so you kind of lose feeling in it for a couple of minutes. Sometimes it shoots down your neck or you might jar your neck and it goes into the shoulder.

"Also in training, I had one when I thought I dislocated it again but I was actually fine and I was getting called Lazarus because I was coming back from the dead. I was certain I dislocated it and that was the end of my career but no it has actually been pretty good."

Cooney had set a goal of getting into the Ireland squad by the summer of 2016 but owing the injury and a self-admission his form wasn't where it needed to be anyway, that call-up didn't come.

The counsellor with whom he was working gave him a tip which he still uses: Train with the mentality that you're an Irish international, even if you are not. Four years on and the Dubliner has 11 Irish caps and has moved to Ulster.

He was the scrum-half option off the bench in last year's Six Nation under Joe Schmidt and again this year in Andy Farrell's first games in charge.

In between. there was disappointment: Four days after Ireland's first World Cup warm-up game against Italy, he was cut from Schmidt's tournament training squad.

"To be honest, I didn't see it coming, which made it a little bit more difficult," he says.

I missed the phone the call. I think Tyrone were playing in the [semi-finals] of the All-Ireland. I looked at my phone and saw the missed call. I knew straight away I was cut from the squad which was heartbreaking.

[There were] reasons I personally didn’t agree with. I said how I felt, that I hadn’t been given the opportunities I thought I deserved. I dealt with it.

The problem was that I had a little bit of a calf injury going into the quarter-final against Glasgow and I probably didn’t have one of my best games. I could barely sprint. So that affected me a little in terms of selection; that was the last game I played, that didn’t really help.

He said just about my defensive capabilities which sometimes I thought was one of my stronger things. But everyone has a different opinion.

Maybe this is the way I am wired, the first thing I did was head straight to the gym and worked out for an hour rather than feel sorry for myself. I just thought I'd go to work and get back with Ulster.

Dan McFarland (Ulster head coach) rang me, just to have a word with me and told me to just keep going. I didn’t really sit on it, I told myself ‘I am going to make them realise they made a mistake and they should have brought me in’.

I go back to [my time at] Leinster. I had Joe and he was incredible for my first couple of seasons. I had about 16 [Leinster] caps with him by 21 or 22. My career was going really well. Then Matt O'Connor came in and it completely changed. I wasn't in his plans at all. I was essentially sent on loan.

That gave me a chip on my shoulder, became the driving force within me, I didn’t want to be that player who went to Connacht and that was the end of his career. It probably was the way it looked for the first two or three seasons. If people were looking for my name on team-sheets, they never found it.

I was adamant that wasn’t going to be me. It goes back to taking control and understanding that it is my life, my career and I can shape the future of it. I realised it is a choice in terms of how I react to everything.

I worked as hard as I ever did back then. It probably wasn’t seen by everyone at first. They say it takes years to become an overnight success and that is pretty correct.

I am a big fan of stoicism and that form of psychology. I can't remember the exact word in Latin but just understanding that even in life, it could all end suddenly. It's taking that into your career, it is interesting if you study other people - it's something earlier in my career I wouldn't do but now I try to study as many other players or other sports.

You can learn from other people rather than just your own experiences. It is about understanding that sport is fickle and it can change. Careers are fickle, sometimes they can be ended short - it's just about enjoying it while you can.

Covid-19 pulling the handbrake on this year's Six Nations came at an especially bad time for Cooney's international prospects. It was looking as though he was about to nudge Conor Murray from the number nine jersey.

"I found it quite weird," he says of people calling for him to gets a chance, "because throughout my career it has never been one where people have touted me or praised me.

"Maybe what drove me in my career was proving others wrong.

"Different people calling for me (to start) or giving me praise was something I wasn’t used to.

"The same thing happened with my goal kicking.

"Not to blow my own trumpet but I’ve never really heard of someone taking up goalkicking at 24/25 in their career and get to kick for their province.

"Even getting that first kick against England for Ireland was huge for me. To think seven/eight years ago I couldn’t even kick for my AIL team - I remember at Lansdowne I couldn’t even kick for them and here I am getting to kick for Ireland.

"I was never a goalkicker but due to injuries at Connacht, I got an opportunity to kick. I ended up getting my first 16 kicks in a row and I remember thinking 'No one thinks I’m going to get these, so screw it I might as well try to get them'.

"Once I started getting them, people expected me to get them so I’d to flip it where if people think I’ll get them, I’ll get them.

"It’s about adapting your mentality, which I had to do and going out to prove people right and play well."

Tackle Your Feelings was launched by Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich Ireland in 2016 and is funded by the Z Zurich Foundation. Today John was on hand to lend his support to the #ImTakingControl campaign which encourages people to ‘Take Control’ of their mental wellbeing using principles from both sport and positive psychology.

In what is a difficult time across the island of Ireland, people can struggle to look to the future with positivity, Cooney is sharing his story of how earlier in his career he was struggling mentally and had no certainty of what was going on. He explains that by taking control of the situation and setting goals and adopting practices 'as if' he had already reached his goals he was able to achieve his proudest moment of winning his first Irish cap.

Cooney acknowledges that by Taking Control of his mental wellbeing he is able to manage situations better and urges people to take control by using the Tackle Your Feelings App and website.

Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

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