It’s always fantastic for a sport to have rivalries. It ensures that a little extra spice is added to proceedings. It guarantees that what is an already emotional situation becomes even more absorbing for fans. It provides a subplot to the overall athletic contest. And it adds another layer of intensity to the encounter.
However, the rivalry between McCaw and Cooper has now gone beyond the realm of ‘intense’, and entered an even more fascinating territory: niggly.
Cooper’s knee to the head of McCaw in the deciding Tri-Nations decider may have gone unpunished by officials, but anyone who thinks it was unintentional is fooling themselves.
Cooper was looking right at McCaw when he did it, so the contact could have been avoided if he had so desired.
Clearly Cooper had intent, and as such, I was surprised he wasn’t suspended.
It added another chapter to the growing rivalry between the two players, which appeared to have first brewed in the match between Australia and New Zealand in Hong Kong last year. In that game, Cooper shoved McCaw in the in-goal area during the final minutes of the Wallaby win.
Since then, the two players have had run-ins during almost every game in which they’ve squared off against each other, including the Super Rugby matches between the Crusaders and the Reds.
It’s a fascinating duel, because it’s somewhat unexpected. There isn’t a long history between the two, nor has there been any indication of bad blood before the Hong Kong match.
And McCaw and Cooper are also diametrically opposed in almost every way imaginable.
McCaw is a forward, and Cooper a back. McCaw is an openside flanker and a master at the breakdown. Cooper is a mercurial fly half who utilises sleight-of-hand and silky skills to bamboozle opponents. McCaw is a veteran, whilst Cooper is in the infancy of his international career.
McCaw is a classy leader of men, heavily respected throughout the world, and extremely media savvy. Cooper is a cheeky Queenslander who has had disciplinary, off-field issues, and appears raw and nervous in front of the camera.
From a distance, apart from trans-Tasman bragging rights, their stark differences would suggest that there is little evidence that would indicate that they should be such fierce rivals.
Robbie Deans has called the rivalry ‘healthy’. In reality, whilst it’s fantastic for the media, and provides fans with great banter over a beer, it’s not really a rivalry at all. Rather its two players engaging in some world class niggle.
Both players have a keenness for the battle within the battle, and it’s this quality that they share that makes them bitter adversaries.
Cooper, by virtue of his cheeky personality, loves to indulge in a little bit of niggle during games. His bold confidence is what makes him such a special and dangerous attacking player, but it’s also the reason he loves to engage in some ‘extracurricular’ activities with his opponents.
Meanwhile, McCaw, by virtue of his playing position and amazing skill set, is both accustomed to and motivated by the individual confrontations that rugby serves up.
The next time the two combatants square off against each other very well may be during rugby’s showpiece event: the World Cup final. On the sport’s biggest stage, with the most at stake, you can guarantee that McCaw and Cooper will resume hostilities, should the two nations battle for the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Long may the niggle continue.
You can follow Ryan O’Connell on Twitter @RyanOak