In support of

Ulster and Ireland scrum half and Tackle Your Feelings ambassador, John Cooney talks about the road he chose, how he reacts to setbacks and what motivates him to succeed in his rugby career.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”


I’ve always loved “The Road Not Taken” poem by Robert Frost. It’s fair to say I took the road less travelled to where I am now.

Early in my career I looked to be on an upward trajectory, but it wasn’t as straight forward as that.

A couple of weeks after I turned 22, I was part of Leinster’s Heineken Cup 2012 winning squad. In 2015, I was lining out for Connacht Eagles against Germany as the senior Connacht squad were getting ready for a big European game.

It has been a road of highs and lows.

Ireland Rugby Press Conference, IRFU High Performance Centre, Sport Ireland Campus, Blanchardstown, Dublin 3/2/2020 Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Through it all, I rated myself as good enough to compete at international level. That made the injuries and other setbacks even harder to take.

When Ireland beat New Zealand, I was as delighted as anyone else, but I was also dealing with the disappointment of being part of the squad but not getting picked for the game. It hurt that I wasn’t there.

That day I jumped on the treadmill to make sure I put in as many metres as everyone else. I’m competitive so that’s how I respond.

I do have a chip on my shoulder. I don’t see that as a negative thing. It's not about proving people wrong; it's about proving yourself right.

I’ve no animosity towards anyone but I have certain drivers that make me work hard. I might write Matt O’Connor’s name in my notes in my phone before a game. That’s nothing personal. It’s just a trigger for me.

Sometimes coaches can have an opinion on you and it’s hard to shake that. Sometimes what one coach loves about you, another will hate. That’s the fickle reality of it all. You control what you can.

Guinness PRO14, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 3/1/2020 Ulster vs Munster Ulster’s John Cooney scores a try Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

I always remember the coaches that go out of their way to help you along. Isaac Boss was a huge influence and support to me early on. Over the years, I’ve also had amazing skills coaches like Dave Ellis at Connacht and Dan Soper at Ulster.

They keep you accountable for your performances. They help you to think differently. They will push you to work on key aspects of your game. Sometimes your ego might get in the way, you might think you’d a great game, but they’ll show you the small margins of improvement and guide you that way.

I recently read, “Ego Is The Enemy” by Ryan Holiday. That was a worthwhile read for me. Ego can get in the way of things if you let it.

I’m very responsive to reading about philosophies and psychology of sports. I like learning from other athlete’s experiences.

“The more I read, the less I know.”

You just have to keep working as hard you can and performing as best you can. You look for ways you can get a competitive edge.

The truth is that I’ve always been a better player than a trainer. Marty Moore told me recently that I “train like Jane and play like Tarzan.”

I certainly prefer that than the other way around.

Connacht Rugby Team Homecoming, Galway 29/5/2016
AJ MacGinty and John Cooney
Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

When I was sent on loan to Connacht in 2014, I always thought there would be a route back to Leinster. I spoke to Matt O’Connor before I left for Connacht. I expected a few “work-ons.” There was nothing from him.

I was playing well at Connacht; I was comfortable there and loved the people around me. I was enjoying my rugby.

So when, after some time at Connacht, I was offered a Leinster contract I asked, “Who will be the coach?” When I found out Matt O’Connor would still be there, I saw no point in disrupting the position I was in at Connacht and signed for them. That produced one of my career highlights, winning the Pro12 Final against Leinster in 2016. Highs and lows.

The same thing has happened for me at Ulster. I feel comfortable there. I feel like I can be myself and that’s when I play my best rugby.

Dan McFarland is probably the best coach I have ever seen when it comes to making everyone feel part of the squad. It’s a hugely effective thing.

You want a coach you can speak to, bounce ideas off, and one who’s not afraid to tell you when you can improve.

The Ulster fans are amazing. I knew I had to win their respect when I moved to Belfast. Ruan Pienaar had been immense. I knew I was a different player. So, it wasn’t about trying to emulate Ruan, it was more about putting my own stamp on things.

Near the end of last season, I was given time off and got the opportunity to be in the stand for Ulster’s game against Leinster. My brother had a stag so a gang of us watched the game as supporters. I loved that. It was nice to be in among the fans, have a few beers and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a special stadium.


Not getting selected for the Rugby World Cup was tough. I should have been prepared for the call, but I wasn’t. When the news came that I wasn’t going to Japan, it side swiped me.

I did what I always do and hit the gym. When Dan McFarland called to see how I had reacted to the news, I was on a treadmill.

As big of a disappointment as that was, I was determined to come back stronger. That’s how it has to be for me.

The scrum half position for Ireland has become highly competitive. That’s a good thing. There’s a huge mutual respect among myself and the other guys. My job is to focus on my own self-improvement. One of Joe Schmidt’s mantras was a Henry Ford quote, “The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all but goes on making his own business better all the time.” I’ve adopted that mantra. Its written up on the wall.

Jonathan Sexton and John Cooney celebrate the Heineken Cup Final Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

I’m a footballer who plays rugby. I only took up rugby in my teens. I played with Beechwood FC in Ranelagh up to youths. I went to Leinster rugby trials, scored a couple of tries, made the Leinster schools team and went straight from there play a cup final for Beechwood against Dalkey United.

One of my goals is to play a season of Sunday league football when I’m finished playing rugby. If I’m still in the shape to do it.

I recently turned thirty. Through rugby, I’ve grown as a person. On and off the field.

When Dan McFarland took the head coach job. He asked every player what human trait they would choose as a superpower. I said, “resilience”. It’s been a good companion to me on the road less travelled.



May 2020.

Tackle Your Feelings ambassador, John Cooney, is encouraging people to set goals and work towards them in order to take ‘Take Control’ of their mental wellbeing. Tackle Your Feelings was launched by Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich in 2016 and is funded by the Z Zurich Foundation.

For more information on Tackle Your Feelings follow the Instagram account @tyf or visit the website which will share motivational stories along with positive mental well-being tips and exercises.

If you enjoyed John’s piece you might like to read Jack Carty’s – “Sliding Doors”

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