Ulster's John Cooney aiming for double celebration
JOHN Cooney has planned a belated birthday party tomorrow night and he's hoping it's double celebration after Ulster tackle Connacht in the PRO14 quarter-finals at Kingspan Stadium.
Among the guests will be Connacht fly-half Jack Carty, who is a close friend and former club mate of the Ulster number nine, and likely to be a key figure as the western province bid for an unprecedented hat-trick of wins over their hosts in the same season..
Connacht won both the home and away games in the regulation campaign and their victory in November was their first over Ulster in Belfast for 58 years.
Like Cooney, Carty (26) is known for his kicking both off the tee and from hand and the pair will form an important part of the half-back battle tomorrow evening.
"Jack has been having a great season, I have seen his development over the last five or six years and he has consistently improved a lot, worked on himself a lot," said Cooney, who turned 29 on Wednesday.
"I know he has gone to see a sports psychologist and he has worked with different ways of improving himself, especially his kicking.
"He has done a lot with [Ireland skills and kicking coach] Richie Murphy, he has always been a player who could do everything but he just needed that confidence to back himself
"His kicking percentage is up over 80 per cent or 79 and we have a competition between each other."
"We had a bet on for the regular season. He just won it, he had more points and was better by one per cent in the goal kicking. Fair play to him."
Carty has enjoyed the bragging rights so far this season and Cooney will obviously be hoping that changes tomorrow evening and his pal doesn't become a party-pooper.
"Yes we are friends off the field, but when we go on it, he knows I am going to go after him and he is going to go after me. It is part of the game and you enjoy it," Cooney added.
"As a scrum-half, you normally try to get pressure on the opposition 10 when he is kicking, he knows it is going to happen and it happened here in the first match and he was talking to me during the game."
Cooney insists Ulster must make a good start in tomorrow's game if they are to have a chance of stopping Connacht from completing a treble success over his team.
"They are coming here pretty confident having beaten us twice, they started well against us, in the first 20 minutes they were 14-0 up against us in both games, so we have analysed that and how important it is we start well this week," said the Dublin native.
"Just talking to a few of the players, [Connacht head coach] Andy Friend has come in and has just brought a lot of confidence.
"He wants them to play their own game and play to their strengths rather than continuously working on their weaknesses and that is what they have done this year.
"This is their first play-off since the year they won it , it's huge for the province and huge for the team and we'll have to be at our best if we're to get through."