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What's eating Quade Cooper?

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'.


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