HAD things panned out slightly differently, then John Cooney could easily have ended up a Scotland internationalist, but the Ulster No 9 says there is absolutely no danger of divided loyalties in this afternoon’s Guinness PRO14 play-off semi-final clash against Edinburgh at Murrayfield. 

His father – also John – is a prominent Irish religious affairs journalist, who is originally from South Lanarkshire, and the connection did prompt an approach from Murrayfield a few years back, but, ultimately, nothing came of it. 

“He [his father] was born in Blantyre, he went to college at the University of Glasgow and lived all his life there, before he met my mum in Brussels and came to Ireland to work with the Irish Times as a journalist,” explains the 30-year-old. “A lot of my relatives live in Glasgow. My uncle Paul Cooney used to work with Celtic and did Radio Clyde so I have a big connection with Glasgow. 

“After I played in the Heineken Cup Final for Leinster [in 2012], I got a call from Scott Johnson. I’d heard about people getting prank phone calls so for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. He was only interim coach at the time and I didn’t see any point declaring for Scotland when there was an interim coach who might not be there in the long term.  

“I had only turned 22 and I had a chance to get a lot more game time with Leinster and push on with Ireland, so at the time I did not think it was the right decision, but it  definitely crossed my mind again a couple of years ago. If I didn’t get that cap on the tour of Japan [in 2017] it is something I probably would have gone down the route of.” 

Born and raised in Dublin, Cooney initially came of age in the pro game with Leinster but struggled for game time with the province before switching to Connacht for two seasons in 2015, and ultimately ending up at Ulster two years after that, where he feels he has found a place where he feels he really belongs. 

“It has become my home and a place where I see myself living far into the future,” he says. “For me, to win this with my province would be huge. 

“I have a massive gap on my wall where I will hang any medal that I win with Ulster along with my jersey. I would really love to do it this year. We have worked so hard over the past couple of years and our backs have been against the wall at times, so it would feel even sweeter to come through that and come together as a collective and win silverware in a province that deserves it. After waiting for so many years, to win silverware again would be incredible.” 

Ulster have hardly set the world alight since returning from lockdown. They lost their first match back to lowly Connacht and were then overrun by Leinster last weekend. There is no shame in that second result, against the dominant side in the league this year, but it means the Northern Irishman are yet to generate any real momentum after almost half a year of inactivity.

“The first week confidence was down a little bit, we did not perform well or do anything right, but we took a few things from last week with some of the shape we created even though our discipline was a bit poor and we dropped a few balls,” Cooney reasons. 

“We held possession a lot but the biggest driver is results and Leinster were just way more clinical than us. This week, in a semi-final, we need to be more clinical. 

“We have earned this right to be here after a lot of good play during the season as a whole,” he adds. “We are sick of saying next season we will learn – we have been talking too much and not delivering – this time we have to go out there and deliver.  

“I don’t think there will be anything done differently this week. I am sure over a year we have changed bits of our play, but our values haven’t changed and the things that have got us to this stage are pretty ingrained in us now. 

“The present squad is definitely stronger than the side which lost to Glasgow Warriors in last year’s play-off. The real takeaway we took from that game is we started really poorly. We conceded early on and were shocked into the rest of the 70 minutes. This week we be will trying to make sure we start well and not trying to ease into the game as we did last year.”