This time one year ago we were preparing to say a goodbye to one of Ulster’s best imported players as Ruan Pienaar was gearing up to play his final game in the white jersey.
While Pienaar will always have a place in the hearts of the Ulster faithful, his boots have been ably filled by Ulster’s latest star, John Cooney.
His performances this season have been a bright light in what has been a fairly disappointing season for Ulster Rugby. At the end of the regular season, John finishes as the league’s top point scorer as well as the most try assists.
Against Edinburgh he collected his third man of the match award, and while he had plenty of competition for it, he has the most MOTM awards in the Ulster squad. His boot and try guided Ulster to a first away bonus point win.
He performed in a familiar fashion in his last appearance against Glasgow, getting Ulster off to a quick start with a darting try off the base of the scrum.
It’s interesting to note that, according to OPTA, Ulster lead the clean line break statistics in the Guinness PRO14 with 206 while Cooney has the second most breaks on an individual level with 24.
His three of his five tries have come from excellent support running, including this one against Edinburgh earlier in the month.
If Edinburgh’s forwards were switched on, they would have closed the door on Cooney, but credit must go to Cooney for showing the desire to provide support for Stockdale.
His support running has also allowed him to record 13 try assists which is more than double what any other Ulster player has managed this season. His four assists against Southern Kings in January were basic set play moves, however one was the result of a perfectly weighted pass to Craig Gilroy for his hat trick.
The Dublin native has not seen much rugby at out half this year but he filled in against the Ospreys when Johnny McPhillips was replaced after half an hour. His only other experience in an Ulster shirt was for 30 minutes in the away match against La Rochelle earlier in the season. He holds the Ulster nine jersey for however long he wants it, but his versatility means he can be called upon when injuries mount up and he can be counted upon to do a solid job.
While he’s been a stand out for Ulster on the pitch, perhaps the most noticeable thing about John Cooney is that even though he has not been here a year, he has become totally invested in Ulster and his passion on the pitch has already ensured that he is a fan favourite at the province. I – and many others look forward to watching John steer the province for many years to come.
This can be seen with his vociferous dismissal of an article in the Irish Independent which published a clickbait article with the sole purpose of antagonizing the publication’s northern readership.
The situation involving Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery filled a lot of column inches last week. While it appears that both players would prefer to remain where they are, if a move does materialize and that player in question buys into the Ulster culture and shows the same passion as John Cooney has, then I will have no problem.