Friday 24 November 2017

Pantomime villain Cooper recast as Aussie hero

Australia's Quade Cooper
Australia's Quade Cooper
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

UNITING islands and dividing a continent are beyond the capabilities of your average man – but not Quade Cooper.

A public enemy in the land of his birth New Zealand and a divisive figure in Australia, even when the Kiwi-born Wallaby isn't at the eye of the storm, he's the centre of debate.

When he was left out of the Australian squad to face the Lions in the summer, nobody could claim to be surprised, but there was a clamour for Cooper's undeniable talent to be harnessed in some way.

Cooper, though, had made his bed, describing the atmosphere in the Wallaby camp under Robbie Deans as "toxic". Aussie greats David Campese and Nick Farr-Jones weren't fans but, when Ewen McKenzie came in as coach, Cooper was brought back in.

Not only would Cooper be the Wallabies' starting No 10, he's also their vice-captain, and for the first time in his Test career, the goal kicker. Cooper, McKenzie said "suits the culture" of Australian rugby.

"It's recognition for all the hard work you do on and off the field," Cooper said of McKenzie's vote of confidence.

INFLUENCE

"I have had many ups and downs and I've learned a lot from my past. You hope you can put the right influence on the players so they don't make similar mistakes both on and off the field.

"That's the role of being a leader, leading by influence and example. But by no means am I perfect or are any of my team-mates perfect."

Cooper is now re-established as Australia's playmaker for the first time since the forgettable 2011 World Cup in his native New Zealand.

He spent the early years of his life in Tokoroa, the same small town that produced Ireland scrum-half Isaac Boss, Fiji's Nicky Little and All Blacks Keven Mealamu and Richard Kahui, before moving to Australia as a teenager.

His talent was obvious and as a youngster he had turned down the advances of New Zealand to play with Australia. And after the Wallabies scalped their great rivals in the run-up to the World Cup, Cooper was the pantomime villain.

He was booed at every turn and, eventually, he and Australia crumbled. Injury and exile then hindered his international career until McKenzie's appointment – the Wallabies opted for utility back James O'Connor, who is now exiled himself, at out-half for the Lions series.

Cooper made a point during the Lions tour where he was typically daring as the Queensland Reds pushed the tourists hard in their mid-week clash.

Though McKenzie benched him for the early part of his tenure, he has assumed duties like he has never been away.

There was some redemption from the World Cup as he played well against New Zealand in Dunedin. There was more improvement against Italy. Cooper felt it was his best game in recent times, though with tomorrow's game likely to be tight, it will place new focus on his goal kicking.

And the 47-cap back agrees that kicking to silence in Lansdowne Road will bring a new challenge.

"It's quite interesting to see that because there's no sport in Australia where that happens whether it's rugby league, AFL or rugby union," he says.

"Whenever the opposition is kicking at goal, everyone's just going wild, but to come over here and to hear absolute silence, it's quite an interesting thought process – at training I'll be making sure I'm practising in complete silence.

"I've not really had the opportunity to kick in international rugby, but I love having this opportunity. It's a choice and you don't have to accept it."

Cooper has a long association with Ireland, going back to 2005 when he toured here with the Australian schoolboys against an Irish team that featured Keith Earls – "He was a big dog that time. He was playing 13 and he was really good. He was a freak."

The 25-year-old hopes to look in on the families he stayed with then and has made contact via Twitter.

He also played in the 2009 Test, when Ireland grabbed a draw with a late smash and grab in Croke Park.

Tomorrow, he'll look to take another step towards convincing the unconverted.

"I'm like everyone else, I hate failure. I don't want to fail but you've also got to know that there will be times when you do fail and you're not going to be perfect."

A second coming of sorts for Cooper. Ireland will hope there's a few more days before he completes the resurrection.

Irish Independent

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