John Cooney clocked 10 metres per second a few weeks ago and it was fitting that he should hit a new peak speed time, because he has set a relentless pace this season that his Irish scrum-half rivals are struggling to match.
Ulster’s number nine scored an incredible ninth try of the season in last week’s Champions Cup defeat at Clermont, a loss which means the side must beat Bath in Belfast this afternoon to secure a place in the quarter-finals for the second year in a row under head coach Dan McFarland.
In recent weeks he has faced world-class pivots such as Morgan Parra, Greg Laidlaw, Danny Care and maybe most critically, Conor Murray, and seen them all off.
“I am a competitor so any time I play number nine it’s one of my goals to play as well if not better than him (opponent),” Cooney says.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go into every game, and that was Caolin Blade (of Connacht) included, thinking ‘I want to get the upper hand in these games’.
“I feel physically very good at the moment.
“At the moment I feel I am playing games and could nearly play again the next day or two days after.
“I feel really good and it helps mentally when you are going into games feeling really good.
“I think I have gone well in those games and enjoyed the competitive aspect of it.”
Clearly, Cooney is a man in form and bursting with confidence. Mentally and physically he could not feel any better and is relishing one last chance today to prove to new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell that he should be his first-choice scrum-half for the Six Nations opener against Scotland in two weeks time.
He thinks he deserves it and he feels ready to start.
“I’d like to think I am anyway.
“You never know until you play but I find when I’m playing games I’m a different animal to when I’m training.
“It is difficult if you are just getting picked off your training performances because I find in a game you have adrenalin, you’re confident and you’re a different animal to what you are during the week.
“So I’d like to get an opportunity to show what I can do in a game.
“It would be nice to get that but it depends how he (Farrell) wants to go, if he wants to pick Conor or Luke (McGrath) or whoever. I just hope that I can make it.”
Cooney can’t remember when he might last have scored nine tries in a season but laughs that it could have been in an U13 blitz in his first year at Gonzaga College.
Pace has always been an important part of his game, but he is putting a few team-mates to shame these days posting the sort of speeds in training that make wingers nervous.
He credits Ulster assistant coach and former Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel for encouraging him to put that speed to better use.
“Dwayne said to me in the summer that he wanted to see more from me in terms of scoring tries.
“Sometimes when a coach is telling me something, it sticks with me …. and that stuck with me.
“He said he wanted to see more than just support tries.
“I think I’ve actually only scored two or three from support.
“I’ve been trying to get a few outside of that, making breaks and it was good to hit peak speed time the other week because I’ve been chasing that for about four years.
“I put a lot of emphasis on that part of my game. I want to be as fast as I can.
Ulster go with a settled team again, injury fears easing over Will Addison who again starts at fullback. The only change is Tom O’Toole at tighthead for the injured Marty Moore.
Bath make seven changes from last week’s loss to Harlequins. They have no interest in Europe now having lost five from five and lost World Cup star Anthony Watson to injury last week, though England’s brilliant flanker Sam Underhill is on board for the trip to the Kingpsan, where Ulster are unbeaten in their last 19 home games.
“They have a lot of good individuals but we have momentum and we have come on a lot since we played them over there (in November),” added Cooney.
“We have no trouble getting up for these games at home and want to keep our good home record going for as long as possible.”