Ireland international Cooney the composed catalyst in Ulster’s turnaround

Murray Kinsella reports from Welford Road

WHEN JOHN COONEY entered the fray, Ulster were in trouble.

13-0 down and looking unlikely to turn the game around, Dan McFarland’s side were staring at the possibility of leaving their quarter-final destiny in Munster’s hands.

Cooney slotted two conversions in an important replacement appearance. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

While it would be unfair to push all of the credit for what followed onto scrum-half Cooney, there is no doubt he settled the Ulster team and helped them to click into attacking gear as they scored two converted tries to secure a 14-13 victory and a first Heineken Cup quarter-final in five years.

Dave Shanahan, the starting scrum-half, had a tough task for the opening 50 minutes of the game, often dealing with scrappy possession and Ulster head coach McFarland was keen not to overlook the 25-year-old while praising the impact of Cooney.

“I think so, but you also have to be fair to Dave Shanahan,” said McFarland. “He was having to work behind a really messy breakdown.

“We were a little bit disappointed that their tackler seemed to always be in the way, lying there and pretending he was trying to get out of the way when he wasn’t really getting out of the way so poor old Dave was tripping over him and that stymied our game to a certain extent.

“When John came on he showed real composure, some of his kicking from the base of rucks was really excellent.

“He kicked a really crucial goal, nailed a touchline kick from in the middle of the field. He did really well, they both did well.”

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will have been encouraged by Cooney’s impact on his return from injury, particularly with Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath missing from his Six Nations squad due to their own injuries. 

Indeed, Cooney is likely to be in Ireland’s number 21 shirt for the Six Nations opener with England in two weekends’ time, meaning his impressive return at Welford Road couldn’t have been better-timed. 

Connacht’s Caolin Blade offers another scrum-half option in Schmidt’s squad but it would be a big ask for him to debut against Eddie Jones’ England.

Henderson was man of the match for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt will also have taken heart from the man-of-the-match showing by Iain Henderson on his return from a lay-off after thumb surgery in December.

The powerful lock was something of a surprise inclusion in Ulster’s starting team for this clash with Leicester but he showed few signs of rust in a typically influential display in the second row.

“Somebody described him as a towering presence and he is a towering presence,” said McFarland.

“We have some good players, but Iain is magnificent. He adds physicality, he adds go-forward, composure. He’s a top player.

“I know that everybody in Ireland will be pleased that he’s back and getting some games under his belt.”

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