Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has challenged out-of-favour scrum-half John Cooney to give him a selection headache by coming back “bigger and stronger”.
Cooney was pushing Conor Murray for his country’s number nine jersey before lockdown but has suffered a spectacular fall down the pecking order after being omitted from Farrell’s latest squad.
The Ulster man is used to enduring disappointment at international level, having been left out of last year’s World Cup selection by former coach Joe Schmidt.
Farrell, whose side are preparing for Guinness Six Nations clashes with Italy and France, insists he has not closed the door on 30-year-old Cooney or fellow scrum-half Luke McGrath.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a new direction – I think John Cooney is a great player,” said Farrell.
“I think Luke McGrath is a great player as well and Luke’s missed out. 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.”
Cooney came off the bench in each of Ireland’s three Six Nations matches earlier this year.
He has seemingly paid the price for his inconsistent post-lockdown form, which led to him being dropped for Ulster’s Guinness PRO14 final defeat to Leinster last month.
The recalled Kieran Marmion and uncapped Jamison Gibson-Park have been preferred as competition for first-choice scrum-half Murray.
Ireland sit fourth in the table but only four points off joint-leaders England and France and with a game in hand over their title rivals.
They host Italy in a behind-closed-doors clash on October 24 in Dublin before completing their campaign in Paris a week later.
Ireland’s plans have been hit by a series of selection issues, with full-back Jordan Larmour, prop Tadhg Furlong, lock Ryan Baird and number eight Max Deegan out injured, while Ulster captain Iain Henderson is suspended after receiving a three-match ban for his red card against the Ospreys.
24•10•20 | The Return pic.twitter.com/VVcuharM3j
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) October 2, 2020
Farrell had better news on the fitness of captain Johnny Sexton and prop Andrew Porter and remains hopeful the Leinster pair can overcome hamstring issues to feature against the Italians.
“They’ve got a few protocols to come through but they’re looking good,” he said.
“They trained a low-key session yesterday and got through that absolutely fine. At this moment in time, they are progressing very well.”
Farrell’s men were among the first teams to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic when their initial clash with Italy, scheduled for March 7, was postponed on February 26.
The head coach said his players have been “brimming” with enthusiasm for the return of international rugby and hopes to give the entire nation a lift.
“We’ve waited a long time for international rugby to come back and I suppose it’s a nice tonic for the whole country to be able to watch the sport at international level come back on the screens,” Farrell said.
“We’re desperate to put on a good showing for the people of Ireland.”