John Cooney: Fast start is key for Ulster in Clermont

Scrum-half believes province must improve on performance in win over Montpellier

John Cooney is focused on nailing down a place on Ulster team
Ulster's John Cooney has said Stade Marcel-Michelin in Clermont is one of his favourite away grounds
European Challenge Cup quarter-final: Clermont v Ulster (Saturday, 12.30pm, TNT Sport)

John Cooney wants Ulster to make a fast start at the Stade Marcel-Michelin in the European Challenge Cup quarter final against Clermont to take the hostile crowd out of the occasion.

Clermont’s home ground is one of the most atmospheric and intimidating in Europe, however, Ulster did win on there last visit there in November 2021 with Cooney landing five penalties and two conversions in a 29-23 success.

“It’s really loud over there and those games they’re always going to get their purple patch and when they do it seems they go tenfold when they start banging the sides and making a lot of noise,” recalled Cooney.

“So, it does get difficult but it’s something we’re working on with our body language and again it’s something that’s probably been poor the last few weeks our ability to get together and come up with a plan and be aware of what’s going on in the game and then go and fix it.”

“If you watch Racing at home here, we started unbelievably quick, at Connacht we started quick, Leinster we started quick whereas the last couple of games we’ve been the opposite so I’m sure we’ll have an awareness this week that we need to start fast and try and get a lead.”

“Last time we went over there that’s what we did, we took the points, built a lead and got ahead in the game and we understand that going to a tough French team like this you want to get a lead.”

“Stuff like the Harlequins game just rolled out of mistake after mistake and the game just got away from us so it’s our ability to get back together and come up with a plan of how we’re going to fix this game live rather than wait until after.”

“You can feel it when they’re on top especially at Clermont and I remember last time (Damian) Penaud scored a try or two and it got really, really loud so you can always feel when the other team are getting on top same at the Stormers that was really loud and similar to a French atmosphere.”

“It’s something we’re aware of and we probably silenced Stormers for the first 60 minutes so it’s our ability to play 80 and keep them as quiet we can.”

Despite the hostility directed at him by the hordes in yellow and blue Cooney likes playing at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

“It’s probably the best away ground I’ve played in, I love the atmosphere and how loud.”

“They are a seriously good side, they’ve always been.”

Ulster's Michael Lowry runs with the ball during the Heineken Champions Cup, Pool A match at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Picture date: Saturday January 22, 2022.
Ulster's Michael Lowry runs with the ball during a Heineken Champions Cup, Pool A match against Clermont in January at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

“It’s a European stronghold, their breakdown is unbelievable so as it’s something we need to improve this week it’s probably the perfect game to play and they have people like Alivereti Raka and Peceli Yato big game breakers, so we’ll be ready for all that.”

Cooney knows Ulster will need to play better in Clermont than they did in securing their place in the last eight against Montpellier.

“I’ve played rugby a long time and a long time for this club so I would say my standards are high so delighted with the win but a bit frustrated about how we played in the first half.”

“I feel like if we’d left without that concern we’re probably way off.”

“Those games are like that and we did realise in the first half our discipline was poor and our ability to hold the ball and win rucks was poor and we got a stern talking to at half-time from both Richie and also Hendy and we knew in the second half we’d come out better.”

“We did know we’d get a purple patch in the second half regardless and we always thought we could get back into that game.”