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What's eating Quade Cooper?

Excessive highs, and lows ... Quade Cooper, mercurial man.

Excessive highs, and lows ... Quade Cooper, mercurial man. Photo: Getty Images

An easy way out of the Quade Cooper discussion is to just call him "mercurial" or "enigmatic", which is a neat way of saying "we're not sure what's going on either". The roundabout implication of both descriptions is that Cooper has obvious flaws in his game but the beauty generally outweighs the defects.

Cooper is by no means the first footballer whose highs and lows are so excessive they can leave you in roughly the same emotional state. Both involve rubbing of the eyes and overly dramatic hand gestures.

But for better or worse, he is a lightning rod of all things mortal about the current Wallaby squad, hence the intricate deconstruction of his weekend efforts on the Gold Coast.

If you were describing Cooper in a travel brochure, you might say he caters for backpacking and luxury superbly but needs to work on the three-star options, a yawning gap in the market with a 100 per cent vacancy rate against the Pumas on Saturday night.

At Skilled Park, he took the express elevator from the basement to the penthouse and bypassed all of the ho-hum floors in-between. An error-strewn part one was supplemented by a telling part two, in which he helped the Wallabies climb out of a hole to win 23-19 after being on the ropes trailing 19-6.

After the match, Robbie Deans revealed the same inner-conflict many fans have watching Cooper play; that being whether the tantalising possibility of him delivering something miraculous is worth the anguish of watching him run in circles when it all refuses to work.

Deans was sorely tempted to bring out the hook. It's lucky he didn't, as it turns out, because Cooper showed enough persistence to be a factor in the result, throwing the final pass for Pat McCabe after he'd earlier put Nathan Sharpe over, who couldn't get it down. It was a flourish of boundaries after playing and missing all day.

The heights Cooper reached in 2011 have launched expectations to the extent that even a half-decent performance makes people question his worth. Solid? Stoic? Risk-free? You can hire Berrick Barnes for that.

It's not a particularly fair way of assessing the Cooper game but as his club coach loves to say: "Perception is reality".

Cooper's possible demotion is as unwanted for the Wallabies as it is for the ARU, who can count on one hand the number of genuinely marketable stars they have on the books, while the NRL has GIs and JTs falling out of their back pocket.

It could just be that Cooper is in a patch of average form, which is fine and does happen to all professional footballers at some point. Even the great Darren Lockyer, the most celebrated player of his generation, withstood calls for his sacking at stages of his representative career, bouncing back and tweaking his game to cake egg on faces.

Or there may be other factors worth exploring as a catalyst for the dip in Cooper's performances.

The future

Cooper has signed a three-year deal with the Reds, but is yet to come to terms with the ARU. Until that happens, the suggestions that Cooper and his agent, Khoder Nasser, are continuing to keep their options open won't die quietly, regardless of how much truth there is to the column chatter.

Can it make a difference to a player's performance? You only needed to see the way Will Genia's game improved after his flirtation with the Western Force to realise how much of a burden it can be to certain players.

Sonny Bill Williams, Cooper's close friend and co-inhabitant of the Nasser stable, wants Cooper to consider playing rugby league. Williams will return to the NRL with the Roosters in 2013 and there's more than a few pundits who would be happy to see Cooper make the move as well.

Matthew Johns openly endorsed Cooper last week, saying the Brisbane Broncos should make a play for a five-eighth capable of turning a match. Given Brisbane's stubborn insistence to promote from within, that's unlikely, although it doesn't mean Cooper isn't intrigued by the prospect.

If he's feeling unloved by the ARU and under pressure from his own coach, Cooper may not be in the best space to produce his best rugby.

The knee

Don't discount the knee. Returning from a full reconstruction is no walk in the park for any player and it's especially true when you are a playmaker like Cooper, who earns his crust with nimble feet and fast hands.

The post-knee injury Cooper is a more subdued version of the pre-injury entertainer. Cooper is a wonderful passer but was just as dangerous with the ball in hand, having good enough footwork and speed to beat a man one-on-one and set up his outside players. That surge of pace and confidence to change direction in a hurry hasn't been as evident since his return late in the Super Rugby season.

He's made up in other areas. Cooper's front-on defence has been solid and he has regularly put his body on the line when required.

But the memories of a serious knee problem aren't easily erased. I've spoken to players who said it took a full season to fully regain their physical confidence from a major operation. Cooper could well fall into that category, even if he hasn't fully perceived his own hesitations on the field.

The coach

Let's not start a Deans v McKenzie argument but there's one thing that's apparent: McKenzie knows how to get much more out of Cooper than his Wallaby counterpart.

There is the theory that Cooper thrives in Super Rugby because there is a premium on points and open play, while the contracted defence of Test rugby is a lock he is yet to pick. But it's also difficult to see how such a talented player can at times look so lost when surrounded by the best players his country has to offer. Something is being lost in translation.

The Reds play a brand of football that caters to Cooper's ability to see, read and execute. Much like the North Queensland Cowboys are geared to react to the wonderful attacking instincts of Thurston and Matt Bowen, Reds players understand that Cooper can spin it or kick it from anywhere on the field if an opportunity arises.

McKenzie knows that is one of the Queensland's biggest assets and crucially, a massive selling point for fans. As such, he publicly backs Cooper to the hilt, even when things don't go his way. It's arguable Deans hasn't always been as forthcoming with that support, while its clear his systems and Cooper aren't always compatible.

It could be a case of square pegs and round holes and players like Cooper can soar on momentum as easily as they baulk with self-doubt.

An elite athlete from another code told me last week that understanding your role and knowing you have the complete faith of the coaching staff is a huge plus when trying to perform. Whether Cooper takes the field knowing he has the liberty to try – and occasionally fail – is open for debate.

What to do with Quade Cooper? Leave your thoughts below and if you can't think of anything, just say he's an 'enigma'.

48 comments

  • As he well knows and practices, hard work wins out. He may need to apply the same to the mental training as well, and that one takes time at the top, especially post-surgery. Training to ignore distraction and therefore focus is a time thing, but you have to realise it's there. League? Maybe after some more time honing the mental game and learning to operate despite the background noise...

    Training is one thing, top end game time is another. Lets not overlook the success factor of habit. A winning team of good combinations breeds on it's own success and conversely on it's own failures. One look at the ABs tells that story. The Wallabies are in a hole right now but with persistence and attitude WILL come right. We had glimpses of this in the 2nd half of the Pumas game.

    Commenter
    Andrew
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    September 18, 2012, 6:10AM
    • There has always been a lot to like about QC and his flair on the field. That skill and unpredictable seizing of opportunities others don' see are the things that we so often venerated in our footballing greats (like Campese, Ella Brothers, Wally Lewis). However, underneath that, needs to be a high base level of performance. Just like an athlete might build up their aerobic base to better perform and recover from high-intensity efforts, a player like QC needs to do the same in performing the more "mundane" tasks - finding touch, good passes to teammates when there is no pressure, making tackles,for example.
      All of these he has proven more than capable of doing very well. He just needs to perhaps be more consistent in executing them. Reliability was also a formidable asset possessed by our footballing greats (Tim Horan, Darren Lockyer). While I have no doubt they loved to make the big play, it strikes me that they were just as pleased to have a zero in their error column at the end of the game. If QC takes a similar approach, his consistency will improve and his team will be in a better position to provide him chances to weave his magic.

      Commenter
      Robbo
      Location
      Qld
      Date and time
      September 18, 2012, 6:29AM
      • Phil, it's plain as bloody day whats eating Quade is the dull, boring uninspiring wallaby coach who just wants the wallabies to play crash ball and the one dimensional stiff (pat mccabe) he is being forced to play next to. It's easy to see why the kiwi and league trolls laud Deans and bag Cooper because they are terrified that when (not if) McKenzie takes over the Wallabies and some of Deans underperforming 'romneys' are dropped for our best players and the Wallabies start playing exciting rugby like the Reds of 2011 then the All Blacks will be on the end of some real spankings and union will overtake league in popularity as the Reds have done to the Broncos in Brisbane. It's just that ex Wallaby ARU members like John Eales, George Gregan and Michael Hawker don't have the guts to admit their mistake with Deans. Other 'celebrity' board members like Peter Cosgrove should have stuck to what they know.

        Commenter
        johnny-boy
        Date and time
        September 18, 2012, 7:59AM
        • I agree to a great extent. What Cooper needs is someone else in the backs, other that Ioane who can actually make a break using their footwork (such as James O'Connor). Whileever Cooper is the only danger to a defence it is so easy to bottle him up and force those long passes to someone who can make a break

          Commenter
          Old Subbie
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 18, 2012, 5:52PM
        • "boy"..........nino more like!
          what a load of tripe
          See your quack and change your medication please as this rubbish has no place on a rugby lovers forum
          I have just returned from my new home in Colombia and watching Pumas in action in Rosario a few weeks ago.............like all Latinos it was a day of passion and rugby enthusiasts who are very knowledgeable...........You would not fit in with these rugby stalwarts
          Wobblies to beat AB's just because McKenzie MAY be coach........in your damp dreams!!! AB's will be dominant for DECADES to come.....in Tri nations, Bledisloe and S15.........wobblies MAY win the odd match on a day when the AB's are having a real off day but you should be more worried about Scotland, Samoa, Ireland and the new boys........Pumas
          Again, until then.........dont stop taking your meds and drop the vitriol about anything not reds or qld centric

          Commenter
          headed off
          Location
          Guatavita, Colombia
          Date and time
          September 18, 2012, 8:01PM
      • Cooper might not have been at his best, but how about Phipps?? He was absolutely shocking with passes either over Cooprs head or throwing worm burners at his feet. I wont even talk about the ones that went behind or way out in front. His box kicks werent too bad, but some of his kicks for territoy were either useless or were out on the full. Cooper played alright, it was the half back providing him the ball that was the problem. I cant believe he wasn't pulled off at half time. Phipps needs to be dropped alltogether, he's uselsss in defence and proved last saturday night he is pretty average at providing the fly half with good clean quality ball.

        Commenter
        Sack Phipps
        Location
        QLD
        Date and time
        September 18, 2012, 8:53AM
        • I'm tired of people defending Quade Cooper. He's been given so many opportunities and failed to deliver I think someone else deserves to be given a go at number 10. Sure he's had injuries and this may have mentally disadvantaged him but then again compare him to a class player like Dan Carter, who seems perpetually injured but continues to play at a high level when he returns to the game, and that excuse falls rather flat. If he can't ignore his doubters or use their criticism to drive himself to work harder at this stage you have to question whether or not he will ever be able to improve his mental game.

           

          Commenter
          Pants
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          September 18, 2012, 9:15AM
          • Come on, Cooper is done. Would you stand outside him as he passes a hospital pass to you as some 10 foot forward has you in his sights. He's not he messiah, he' s just another inconsistant, over-rated, under-performing, non-tackeling Wallaby.
            You guy's say give him space to operate, yes great idea, sideline him and let him watch Berrick Barnes kick all of the possion ball away. I suppose your damned if you do, and damned if you don't, just stop making excuses for him and cut him loose. .

            Commenter
            Deano
            Location
            Melb via NZ
            Date and time
            September 18, 2012, 12:06PM
          • Someone's actually talking sense here! Hallelujah!! No excuses! Guys, we're not talking U11s here. This is Australia's best-of-the-best. If a player (any player) can't hack it on the world stage, then demotion is the best possible answer for all parties. Some might argue, plausibly, that Cooper cost us a better position in the World Cup. Certainly his recent form would support that argument. He's had enough chances on the big stage. Maybe League is a better option for him. As we all know, League doesn't really have a world stage, so it should suit him perfectly.

            Commenter
            Captain Pants
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 18, 2012, 12:17PM
        • Slightly off topic, but would make for an interesting and controversial sports article. The topic is on imported/poached foreign talent (typically high school players from NZ and surrounding countries whom come to Aus as high school imports and go on to representative duties for Aus) - and whether it has been detrimental for Australian rugby. I'm not saying these guys don't give 100 percent, but are they good for the team in general. Do poached players (growing up supporting the All Blacks etc) getting paid ridiculous money have the same pride and respect for the Australian jersey as some kid whom has always wanted to be a wallaby from day dot. Do they have the win-at-all costs attitude etc.

          Commenter
          Matt
          Location
          West End
          Date and time
          September 18, 2012, 9:49AM

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