Can old bad Cooper become new good guy Quade?
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Wallabies player Quade Cooper. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Quade Cooper’s recent interview with Greg Growden caught my eye. The sentiments Cooper expressed, if heartfelt and acted upon, suggest that during his long and painful recovery from his damaged knee, he has grown up and matured as a person.
This maturity, if it is the real thing, could be the makings of him as a great match-winning player rather than the flakey and often brilliant showboat capable of losing games single-handedly as he has been.
Cooper told Growden that he looked on his enforced rehabilitation period as an opportunity “to better myself”.
He said he was mentally and physically stronger than he had been last year: “Ability will on get you so far. The rest is hard work and dedication. My goal is to just keep getting better.”
In my view, there is generally a correlation between a player’s attitude to life and play and a superior performance. The great players are talented athletes, admittedly. But there are many talented athletes who never achieve greatness.
What distinguishes the greats from the could-be greats is a dedication to hard work, a commitment to improving their play no matter what heights they have already achieved, a confidence bordering on arrogance in their ability to turn matches at critical points and a certain humility that they are only as good as their last game.
In business talk this is summed up with the phrase “continuous improvement”.
If you look at the great players you see all these factors coming into play. To take one example, look at the way Richie McCaw has turned himself from being primarily a ‘fetcher’ to an all-round loose forward who wins lineouts, makes the most tackles, runs, links and passes and contests virtually every ruck and maul.
Compare this accomplished versatility with the one-dimensional play of David Pocock.
Getting back to Cooper, there has been a mental flaw and a playing flaw in his game. The mental flaw is that he is too intuitive, rather like Carlos Spencer, a brilliant flyhalf who never graduated to the great category because he never learnt to read the game accurately and to submerge his instincts to ‘express himself’ for the greater good of the team.
This mental flaw of Cooper is aggravated by the playing flaw of his unwillingness and inability to make his tackles. Spencer, a player Cooper grew up admiring, was also a poor tackler. He, like Cooper, tried to compensate for this weakness in his play by over-playing his hand with the ball.
Both Spencer and Cooper have found that it is not possible to play with touch-rugby brilliance in a Rugby World Cup campaign. The five-eighths who have dominated in RWC tournaments have been players in control of their instincts and their game: Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky and Jonny Wilkinson.
If Cooper is serious about the hard work and dedication changing his play, he has to demonstrate this with a huge improvement in his tackling. He says that the lay-off has allowed him to build-up some muscle, so let’s see it.
He can’t be reckoned to be a consistent match-winner at the highest levels if he has to be hidden away on the wing when his team is on defence. All those tattoos and the thin-eyed stare he affects suggest that Cooper wants to be perceived as a hard man on the rugby field. Let him prove by defending in the line and knocking over runners in the manner of Wilkinson and Dan Carter.
If the new Quade has emerged from the bad old Cooper, he needs to improve his attitude to his opponents and the general line of his often stupid twitters.
I know that the accepted argument in Australia is that Cooper was unfairly targeted by rabid All Blacks supporters during RWC 2011 and that the incessant booing and attacks in the media led to a collapse of his confidence and a series of awful performances.
To my mind this is nonsense. Cooper brought the attacks on himself by his infantile attempts to rile McCaw. There was the patronising tap on the head after the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks right on time at Hong Kong. And then last year there was the deliberate knee to McCaw’s head, which provoked a furious retaliation from Brad Thorn.
These incidents were seen for what they were in New Zealand, smart-arsed tactics to engage McCaw in an on-going series of cheap shots. McCaw didn’t buy into this nonsense. But the New Zealand public were rightly incensed and made this clear whenever Cooper played in a RWC game.
For his part, Cooper poured oil on these flames of outrage by twittering away in a manner that showed no respect or good sense. Again, the New Zealand public resented this juvenile posturing. I called this behaviour in a posting on The Roar a bit like ‘farting in a cathedral.’
I would make one other point about all of this. None of the other Wallabies suffered from the same abuse from spectators as Cooper did. Players like Will Genia, Digby Ioane and David Pocock were applauded for their play and received accolades from the NZ media and the NZ public.
Old bad Cooper brought all the abuse on himself. My feeling is that if the new Quade is really determined to be a good guy, on and off the field, that he will enjoy the same sort of rapture, if his play deserves it, that players like Mark Ella, David Campese and John Eales received when playing in New Zealand.
If, of course, is the key word. Well I am a big believer in the redemptive powers of sport. Players can change their behaviour and their lives through their performances on the field. I hope that the good Quade has learned from his time out of big rugby and won’t take for granted the opportunities he has had for growth, as a person and as a player, as he did in the past.
If the new good guy Quade becomes an adequate defender, he should be the number one choice as flyhalf. I know in the past I have argued that he might be better for the Wallabies playing like a Shane Williams-type of winger.
But if he really understands the flyhalf game and if, as he did against the Brumbies, play within himself while still being capable of the match-winning turn, (all the big ifs), then he has a mortgage on the playmaking position for the Wallabies for all long as he wants.
This set-up allows for Kurtley Beale to remain at fullback where he is most effective. It was noticeable to me, for instance, that T G Perenana (who is destined to be one of the great All Blacks halfbacks) monstered Beale in virtually every play in the Hurricanes – Rebels match and rendered him inoperative even before he was injured.
With the new Quade at flyhalf, James O’Connor can move to inside centre with Pat McCabe at outside centre in a type of replay of the Horan/Little combination.
And this brings me to one last point. What better demonstration of the new good guy Quade than a statement of loyalty from him that he intends to stay with the Wallabies until the conclusion of the RWC 2015 in England.
Unfinished business and all that…
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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