Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has reassured John Cooney he still has an international future after leaving the Ulster scrum-half out of his Guinness Six Nations squad.
Cooney, 30, was seemingly on the cusp of toppling Conor Murray as Ireland’s first-choice No.9 after an incredible run of form in last season’s Guinness PRO14, in which he finished as the second-highest points scorer, with 105.
In February, Cooney added three replacement appearances to his previous eight Test caps, forming an important part of a squad that yielded opening victories over Scotland and Wales, before a Round 3 defeat to England.
But a failure to recapture such form when domestic competition returned following the Covid-enforced hiatus saw Cooney dropped by Ulster for their PRO14 final defeat in September, and it seems Farrell is unconvinced he is back to his best.
Kieran Marmion and Jamison Gibson-Park have been picked ahead of Cooney for the autumn action but Farrell has played down the suggestion that Cooney’s international career is over, insisting the door is always open for his return.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a new direction – I think John Cooney is a great player. I think Luke McGrath is a great player as well and Luke’s missed out,” said Farrell. “I don’t take any pleasure whatsoever from not picking them.
“I know that they are desperate to play for their country and rightly so. But you’ve got to make the call, what’s good for the team.
“We look at all sorts of things regarding selection, obviously form, attitude, what the last seven months has looked like, how they’ve come back.
“My job is to select a team that’s going to keep everyone on their toes because competition for places has got to be one of the key factors going forward for this team.
“Some people are going to lose out but I hope that galvanises them and I hope that they come back bigger and stronger and give us a few headaches along the way.”
Ireland kick-start their Championship return at home to Italy on Saturday before an away clash against France, knowing that two bonus-point victories will earn them their second Guinness Six Nations title in three years.
Meanwhile, Cooney will focus his attentions on maintaining Ulster’s perfect start to the 2020/21 PRO14 season, having already contributed 22 points, four try assists and six clean breaks in wins over Benetton and Ospreys.