QUADE Cooper grew up in the New Zealand idolising the extravagant rugby play of Carlos Spencer. Cooper has become a Spencer clone. There are the tats. And the cheeky grin when a clever play has come off. There are the outrageous passes (I once called Cooper, ”the Picasso of the Pass”), the sensational break-outs and the astounding variety of kicks that offer numerous chances for chasers to score tries. Why wouldn’t Robbie Deans pick this Wallaby wizard to bewilder the British and Irish Lions in their Test series?
The answer to this question, perhaps, is that Cooper has another trait of Spencer in his game, which is a tendency to make crucial mistakes in big games. And Deans knows crucial mistakes lose must-win matches. Roll the tape back to the semi-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup tournament. The Wallabies are playing the All Blacks. As the All Blacks are leaving the field at the end of their warm-ups, Deans, then the assistant All Blacks coach, takes Spencer aside for one final instruction: ”Carlos, no cut-out passes!” After surviving a torrid initial onslaught from a fired-up Wallabies side, the All Blacks force a scrum 5 metres from the try line and near touch. They have the width of the field to score an easy try, if the ball goes through the hands. Spencer fires a long cut-out pass. Stirling Mortlock races on to it and runs to glory.
Roll the tape to the 2011 Cup semi-final. Deans is now the coach of the Wallabies. Cooper is his five-eighth. He kicks off. The ball goes out on the full. The All Blacks know this is their Mortlock moment. Then throughout the match, Cooper drops high balls under pressure.
There has been an intense Cooper v Deans debate in Australian rugby, before and after the naming of the Wallabies squad to play the Lions.
The case for Cooper: Deans has won 59.2 per cent of his 71 Tests. But this drops to 52 per cent for the 44 Tests when Cooper was not selected. The Wallabies have won 70 per cent of their matches (and 80 per cent of home Tests) when Cooper is the five-eighth.
The case against Cooper: in this year’s Super Rugby, Cooper has made 59 tackles and missed 12, for a completion rate of 83 per cent, the worst of all the five-eighths. The Reds have scored 26 tries this season. There are 9 other sides that have scored more tries. Cooper’s error rate, 29 for the season, is the highest in the tournament.
The case for Cooper is a historical argument. The case against him is a study in real time. Last weekend’s match, the Cheetahs v Reds at Bloemfontein, is instructive. We saw Cooper’s wonderful skills on display. There was a deft, exact kick early on in the match that Rod Davies chased through to score, but the try was overruled by the TMO for an obstruction off the ball that even the South African commentators disagreed with. Later, Cooper popped a slick inside-pass to Luke Morahan, for the fullback to burst through to score under the posts. Again, the TMO over-ruled the try, even though referee Craig Joubert watching the replays noted: ”Looks good to me”.
But early on in the match, the Cheetahs halfback burst clear. The commentator yelled out: ”He’s got Cooper to beat.” Moments later, with Cooper on his back after a feeble effort to tackle, the try was scored. Then towards the end of the match, Will Genia, under intense pressure, started to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Cooper was unable to hold the side together. Nor was he able to ”traumatise” the Cheetahs’ defensive systems. This was the explicit criticism of his current play that Deans made when he announced the 25-man Wallabies squad last Sunday.
Andrew Slack says Deans has not forgiven Cooper for his ”toxic environment” tweet of last year. It seems to me, though, the toxic impact of his mistakes on the field has more to do with his non-selection than his off-field comments.