Australia’s Quade Cooper polarises opinions in the world of rugby arguably more than any other player, but can the Wallabies’ mercurial fly-half finally prove his worth for his country and cement his place in the starting XV under Michael Cheika?
Do a quick search for Quade Cooper highlights and you’ll find very contrasting video showcases: from moments of genius to a comedy of errors. Throughout his 58 caps he has lit up the international stage with unbelievable footwork, pinpoint accurate passing, and seemingly being one step ahead of the opposition.
Yet just as often as Cooper can be unparalleled in his vision and awareness sometimes his unpredictability means his team-mates often misjudge what he will do next – and occasionally Cooper doesn’t seem sure either. When it comes to game plans, tactical preparation and set plays, the Australian fly-half can’t help going off script more often than not.
He is a man who plays by and trust his instincts but in the high pressure environment of test rugby, structured play is just as important as off-the-cuff flair and finesse.
England head coach Eddie Jones explained recently that international matches require a careful balance between the two (via The Telegraph):
“The best sides are able to play both and the players I am looking for are able to play both, not just that organised game but are able to play in the unstructured zone as well.
“They get the ball in space and they are able to know what to do and what to do defensively wise. I don’t get to see that much up here (in the northern hemisphere). I have got to guess a lot in what they can do in that area because Test rugby goes up and down that scale.”
Whenever Cooper has appeared against New Zealand, however, this Jekyll-and-Hyde-like dichotomy is magnified for several reasons. Firstly, the New Zealand press love picking up on the fly-half’s upbringing. Born in Auckland, raised in Tokoroa in Waikato and then uprooted to Brisbane at the age of 13, it is as if for some growing up in Australia and choosing to represent the country you feel you belong to is bizarrely immoral or inappropriate. The less said about New South Wales-born, Australian U21s representative Steve Devine, who went on to gain 10 caps for his adopted All Blacks, the better.
Secondly, Quade Cooper has in the past been involved in on-the-field incidents with All Blacks demigod Richie McCaw, which, of course, did not go down too well in the land of the long white cloud. In the country of his birth, Cooper has been reduced to a caricature: a target for vilification on particularly spurious grounds. This portrayal, coupled with Cooper’s inconsistency on the field and his impulsive behaviour off it, has spilled out into questions over his dedication to the game itself and to his development.
However, Cooper is a far more complex man than that. A recent tweet by none other than Jonny Wilkinson, a man who for many originally set the standards for rugby players as they emerged into the professional era and who embodies all the best qualities of the unique ethos of rugby union, highlighted his respect for his former Toulon team-mate:
Loved ur work ethic, attitude and working with u QC. And the boxing sessions too! Go express that phenomenal talent! https://t.co/iM8lhJ568B
— Jonny Wilkinson (@JonnyWilkinson) August 25, 2016
But why then did Toulon release Cooper early from his contract? A full year ahead of schedule, in fact. In all likelihood the very regimented and ordered way of playing in the Top 14 in France was exactly what a player like Quade Cooper did not need. If you attempt to restrain someone with natural ability like that they will feel cabined, cribbed and confined. There has to be a delicate equilibrium between the magic and the mundane.
Similarly mercurial players like France’s Frederic Michalak and England’s Danny Cipriani have gone on similar journeys, gradually reworking their games so that they release their box of tricks at the most optimum times. For the latter, he can now only hope that his move to big-spending Wasps will provide him with the platform needed to launch him ahead of either George Ford or Owen Farrell in the England pecking order.
As Cipriani still patiently awaits his opportunity, Cooper has been given another shot at establishing himself as Australia’s premier fly-half because of injuries to Matt Giteau, Matt Toomua and Rob Horne. He will start for an Australian side that is under immense pressure after a 42 – 8 thrashing in Sydney to their opponents this weekend, their fifth test loss in a row. He will come up against intense hostility from a partisan crowd and will form a 10/12 partnership with Bernard Foley, a man who couldn’t be more different to Cooper as a player.
Yet the former Reds five-eighth can and must find a balance between prescription and inspiration, or as former England attack coach Brian Smith would say, ‘freedom within the structure’. If he can do that on Saturday then maybe Cooper can finally be the Australian hero he has always devoted himself to becoming, rather than the comical villain so many have tried to pigeonhole him into being.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena