Make or break for wayward genius Cooper
Aussies wait with bated breath as No 10 looks to force Deans' hand
QUADE COOPER divides opinion in Australia like no other rugby player. Is he a madcap genius whose faults should be overlooked or is he a maverick whose cons outweigh the pros when it comes to including him in the Wallaby set-up?
For many he will always be an outsider, a New Zealander who shouldn't have 38 caps for the Wallabies.
Cooper is a brash, arrogant and divisive player and his critics are firmly supportive of Australia coach Robbie Deans' decision to omit the 25-year-old from the squad who gathered in Sydney on Sunday to begin preparations for the upcoming Test series against the Lions.
But then there are those on the pro side – the Queensland Reds supporters. To the Brisbane population, Cooper is one of their most prized sporting heroes.
For certain, he traverses the line between outstanding talent and frustrating indulgence, but they recognise his ability and don't believe Australia can beat the Lions without their mercurial playmaker conducting the orchestra.
Deans will be at the Suncorp Stadium to gauge Cooper's impact on the Lions in person. Deans has six spots open on his Wallaby roster and while Reds coach Ewen McKenzie doesn't believe he will select his fellow Kiwi, this game is certainly an audition for Cooper.
The relationship between the Aussie boss and Cooper is based around a clear dislike for each other. Last year Cooper was very vocal when publicly criticising Deans' Wallaby set-up and claimed the atmosphere around the camp was "toxic".
So, it is hard to believe that Cooper's omission from the squad is for any other reason other than the bad blood between the two. The official line from the Australian set-up is that they believe James O'Connor at out-half offers them a better "balance", yet the stats are in Cooper's favour.
The Wallabies' winning percentage is 70.37pc and it climbs to 80pc for Tests when Cooper is playing at out-half. He is adept at running a game, is a good kicker out of hand and his elusive running creates a lot of try-scoring opportunities.
Australia have scored 88 tries in the 27 Tests Cooper has played at out-half and they have conceded 42. In the 44 Tests under Deans in which he hasn't played, the Wallabies have managed only 82 tries, while conceding 79.
Those figures question the Australian coach's assertion that Cooper is a liability defensively. He has also performed well against the top-tier nations. Australia have won two out of six Bledisloe Cup Tests in which he has played, and almost matched the All Blacks try for try, 11 to 12.
Without him, they have won just once against New Zealand in the Deans era – way back at the beginning of the Kiwi's tenure in 2008. The tries also dry up without him, just 17 against the All Blacks' 31.
By choosing him to be his captain for the game, McKenzie has been less than subtle in sending a message to Deans.
"We picked our team and then we had a look at the leadership side of it," said McKenzie. "Quade figures in a lot of what happens on the field, but he's also involved in and around the game in terms of what we are going to do each week.
"He has always taken ownership of the game plan. We have a very specific task at hand and I can't think of a better guy to run it for us."
Today Cooper has a chance to make an emphatic statement to Deans, Australia and, indeed, the Lions. If he outplays Owen Farrell – as is likely – the calls to include him in the Australia squad will surely make it impossible for Deans to resist.
Cooper will certainly ask more questions of the young English out-half in today's game than the Western Force pivot did of Jonathan Sexton in Perth – as Lions coach Rob Howley stated at yesterday's captain's run.
"When you've got players of that ilk in your team, you want them to have the ball in their hands as often as you can," said Howley.
"He's a quality player and probably has a bit to prove to the Australian squad and to Robbie Deans, as will a number of the Reds team. Cooper is someone special and we've spent time talking about him. He'll have a huge influence on the game."
With ball in hand, Cooper is liable to do anything, at any time and from anywhere in the pitch. In some ways, he's a coach's nightmare and there's no denying the excitement he brings to his team.
What will be interesting is if Sexton gets an extended run against the Queensland Reds captain today. Sexton is certain to be the Lions starting out-half for the Test series and has been known to make a break or two himself when the opportunity presents itself. However, he has never had to defend against a player of Cooper's virtuosity.
The thought of these two talented No 10s sharing some game-time today is a fascinating prospect. McKenzie wants the national team top job, so he is desperate to win this match and put the Australian Rugby Union and Deans under pressure.
Thus, if this is a Wallaby audition for Cooper, it's no less one for his coach. McKenzie has yet to openly spell out his desire, but his actions in the last couple of months have been all about positioning himself for the succession stakes.
If the Reds beat a Lions selection and the Wallabies – under Deans' direction – lose the Test series, the accepted belief is that either McKenzie or Brumbies' Jake White will succeed the Kiwi. McKenzie will be the favourite in that situation, because the pressure will be on the ARU to appoint an indigenous coach.
For the Lions, this is one of the few chances left for some players to stake a claim for Test places. After today's game they have three games left before the opening Test on June 22 and Howley admitted that the Test side will start to emerge from here on.
Some selection decisions have been made already – Sexton will play at out-half, for example – but there are plenty of places to play for against what is a very strong Queensland side.
It will be interesting to see how Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies combine in the centre, while another strong performance from Richie Gray would make the second-row debate a very interesting one.
Similarly, Tommy Bowe had a relatively quiet second half against the Western Force and if he is to dislodge one of the Welsh wings he needs a strong showing today.
With so much to play for and against truly quality opposition, this contest promises to be the most exciting of the tour so far.
Verdict: Lions 25 Queensland 21