‘Missing World Cup was heartbreaking and I didn’t agree with the reasons’
Mental Health Awareness Week: My friend’s son, John Cooney, lifts the lid on his exclusion from Ireland’s World Cup squad and says he wasn’t given the chance he deserved. Editor
John Cooney Jr playing rugby for Ulster. Heartbroken after being dropped by Ireland manager Joe Schmidt, but proving resilient.
HE MISSED THE phone call. He was watching Tyrone’s dream of reaching an All-Ireland final disappear just when it became clear his own personal goal of playing in a World Cup was also heading south.
He glanced away from the television screen to see a light flashing on his phone. One missed call. Joe Schmidt. “I knew straight away I was cut from the squad,” Cooney says. “It was heartbreaking.”
What made things worse was a sense of injustice. “I honestly didn’t see it coming which made it a little more difficult,” he said in an interview to promote Tackle Your Feelings. “The reasons (given), I personally didn’t agree with. I felt I hadn’t been given the opportunities I deserved.
“But I dealt with it. Maybe this is the way I am wired but the first thing I did was head straight to the gym to work out for an hour rather than feel sorry for myself. I didn’t really sit on it. Straight away, I told myself ‘I am going to make them realise they made a mistake’.
The problem was that he had carried a calf injury into the (2018/19 Pro14) quarter-final against Glasgow. “And I probably didn’t have one of my best games that day,” he says. “I could barely sprint. So that affected me a little in terms of (Ireland’s World Cup) selection.
“And then he (Schmidt) said (something) about my defensive capabilities which I actually thought was one of the stronger parts of my game. But everyone has a different opinion.”
So once again he was at a crossroads, staring towards a path of self-pity or a road to fulfilment. It helped that he’d been here before, Schmidt’s departure from Leinster for Ireland being a significant setback at a formative stage of his career.
“Joe was incredible for me, capping me 16 times (for Leinster) by the age of 21,” Cooney says. “Then Matt (O’Connor, Schmidt’s replacement at Leinster) came in and I was essentially sent on loan (to Connacht). That gave me a chip on my shoulder. It was the driving force within me because I didn’t want to become that player whose career drifted away.”
John Cooney is urging people to take control of their emotions by tacking their feelings, a campaign supported by Zurich.
Yet it looked as if he had. “If people were looking for my name on team-sheets, well they never really found it, did they?”
So this is when his career – and life – turns around. He keeps getting injured, needing three operations to sort out a shoulder problem. At one stage, he briefly fears he may even have to retire.
Instead he gets a lucky break. A few simple stretches on his shoulder loosens it up. Suddenly, he’s feeling free again. Suddenly, he’s handed the responsibility of being a kicker. He was 24. At Lansdowne – his AIL club – he wasn’t trusted with the tee.
But here he was, in the Pro14, asked to take the kicks for Connacht. “I didn’t miss my first 16 kicks, largely because I was kind of thinking, ‘look, no one is going to expect me to get these’. So I turned that thought into a positive.
“I came to the realisation that I had to understand that it is my life, my career and that I could shape the future of it. 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.”
So when he heard the news about Tyler Bleyendaal’s enforced retirement yesterday, it struck a chord. He brought himself back to his own darker days when he wondered if the shoulder injury would ever correct itself.
“I am a big fan of stoicism and that form of psychology,” Cooney says. “You know that, even in life, it could all end suddenly. It is all about understanding that sport is fickle and it can change, it can end before you want it to. So, you’ve got to make the most of things.”
So he started setting higher standards for himself. If he threw a bad pass in training, he scolded himself. “If I was with Ireland, that would not be good enough,” he said.
Life moved on. So did he. Ulster called in 2017. He listened. Within a year, he became a cult hero among their fans, forcing his way into the Ireland team, getting on the brink of a World Cup squad but then missing out on it.
Again, he bounces back. His form in Europe with Ulster last season was better than ever – and better, many people argue, than Conor Murray’s. Suddenly he is a cause célèbre.
“And I found that quite weird because throughout my career, I have never been one where people touted me or praised me and that is what drove me throughout my career, this idea I had to prove people wrong.
So I found it a bit different to hear people giving me a lot of praise. It was something new to get used to.”
Another bigger adjustment was around the corner. Sport was one of the first things to be shut down due to the Coronavirus, Ireland’s game against Italy – one Cooney was tipped to start in – getting postponed in early March.
Before long, every aspect of normal life was altered. And again, John Cooney’s attitude was to turn a problem into an opportunity. “I’m fitter than ever,” he says, admitting that he sometimes struggles for motivation, such as earlier this week when he woke up on Monday morning not in the mood to do much.
Knowing his day could drift away, he watched a motivational video. By teatime that day, he’d spent an hour in the gym and gone on four runs.
Another motivational boost came from the news this week that Ulster had added Ian Madigan and Alby Mathewson to their roster. Suddenly, he feels the province are on the cusp of something.
“If we want to be a team that is competing for trophies we have got to have that strength of depth in the squad and it is something that Dan (McFarland) has underlined to us several times, saying we need players to provide cover in every position so we can even have the rotation that say Leinster have.
“I know Ian well. I grew up with him, played with him underage, have seen him mature into an even better player since he went abroad and believe he has an incredible skill-set. His passing game and running game is incredible.
New Ulster signing Ian Madigan seen here kicking a penalty for Bristol.Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
“From speaking to him, I don’t think he sees this as him coming over and getting his place in the team. He understands he has to work hard to get into the squad.”
These signings, Cooney believes, could be the final pieces of the jigsaw to turn Ulster from nearly men into champions.
“Recently, I got a couple of my jerseys framed to put up in the house but I’ve made a promise to myself that I am not putting up one of my Ulster jerseys until we win something.
“Losing last year’s quarter-final to Leinster was heartbreaking but I have never been as sore coming off a pitch or as proud of a bunch of players as I was that day. The performance made us believe that we belong in the top flight of European rugby.
“We need to learn from those experiences. The thing Dan drives all the time is for us to have a desire to get better.
“Things can just click for a team. I got that from the Connacht experience, the spirit in that squad in 2015/16, it all came together for us, it was brilliant. It can happen for Ulster too.”
* 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 well-being using principles from both sport and positive psychology.