Quade Cooper.
Quade Cooper. SMP Images - Charles Knight

The mystery of Quade Cooper

QUADE Cooper, the outside-half who can win this World Cup for Australia, was born a New Zealander - and not a million miles from Auckland, either, which makes him more interesting still ahead of this weekend's trans-Tasman semi-final at Eden Park. Maybe this explains why his Wallaby colleagues are not quite sure what makes him tick; not entirely certain whether he is simply a riddle in human form, a slightly more complicated conundrum on legs, or a full-blown enigma wrapped up in a mystery. The only definite take on him came from the centre Anthony Fainga'a, who was heard to say: "Quade? I can tell you this. He never has two bad games in a row. Ever."

As Cooper undeniably had a rough one against the Springboks in Wellington three days ago - his tackling was unusually committed and he even managed to produce one of the try-saving variety, but the rest of his game was chaotic - he is presumably in the best place to deliver something rather more accomplished against the All Blacks. This is not lost on the hosts, who would clearly prefer their nearest neighbours to run someone else in the No 10 position. "He's mercurial, he's dangerous - when he has a really good game, you're in trouble," admitted the New Zealand coach, Wayne Smith. "And the thing is, quality players tend to come right pretty quickly."

It is routinely said in these parts that Cooper is the most loathed man in the country: in one recent poll, he registered a higher disapproval rating than the two French agents convicted of blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in the city harbour a little over a quarter of a century ago, three years before little Quade came blinking into the world. Over the last few months, he has compounded his sins by falling out with the All Black captain Richie McCaw, a secular saint here; only last month, he found himself on the wrong end of some friendly fire from the former Wallaby scrum-half and World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones, who described him as a "boofhead" for going out of his way to wind up the great flanker.

This is the man at the heart of the Wallaby campaign, a playmaker whose genius for the unexpected can leave his team both exhilarated and exasperated, sometimes in the course of the same move. Cooper always goes one better. Last Sunday, when the All Blacks defeated a deeply courageous and combative Argentina in the last of the quarter-finals, Colin Slade and Cory Jane attempted a jaw-droppingly audacious double cross-kick move that, had it succeeded in creating a try for Mils Muliaina, might have been seen as the final word on attacking rugby. Yet during the Super 15 tournament just gone, Cooper cross-kicked at an acute angle to Digby Ioane from behind his own posts and went almost as close to creating a try for all the ages.

"Even his bad games are good games in my view," said Fainga'a, who plays alongside Cooper in the Queensland Reds midfield. "You reckon he had a bad game against the Springboks last week? Well, here we are in the World Cup semi-finals. Quade probably made more tackles in that match than he's made the whole year."

Fainga'a may have been stretching a point: two of his more experienced back-line colleagues, the scrum-half Will Genia and the ever-versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper, both tacitly admitted that their high-profile team-mate's performance was some way short of perfect. Yet at the same time, they defended him to the hilt. "He'll respond to last week in a very positive way," Genia insisted. "At the meeting we've just had, he was throwing out ideas he thought would benefit the team. What we must do against the All Blacks is put ourselves in positions where we can actually play, rather than defend for the whole game. That's on the team's shoulders, not Quade's."

In Ashley-Cooper's view, all outside-halves need "some support and security" from those around them and agreed that his near namesake found the absence of that against the South Africans somewhat challenging. "There are a lot of people against Quade in this country, but at this level you have to embrace the pressure and deal with it. He'll do that. He's an important member of our squad because so much of our game goes through him."

These Wallabies were at their most striking: there were no leaks of trade secrets, but they were relaxed, communicative and entirely comfortable with their place in the grand World Cup scheme of things. The polar opposite, you might say, of some, if not all, the England players who underperformed so badly at this tournament. Ashley-Cooper, a recent target for both Leicester and a clutch of French clubs before recommitting himself to Super 15 rugby in his homeland, was particularly impressive in his analysis of the contest ahead.

"To put it simply, the All Blacks are the ultimate competitors," he said, "and there is nothing more competitive than an Australia-New Zealand match-up in any sport - certainly in no code of rugby." Did the Wallabies think it possible to beat McCaw and company in the way they beat the reigning champions: that is to say, by defending deep in their own territory for well over 70 per cent of the game? "I think we can look positively on the fact that our defence won us that last match, because it shows we have character," he replied. "But we spent a lot of time in our own 22 and we'll have to find ways of getting out of there this weekend because the Kiwis are extremely good at turning pressure into points. We can't simply look at what we did against South Africa and park ourselves there. We need to build something if we're to get through this."

The last time the Wallabies prevailed over their great rivals in this city, 22-6 in 1986, the World Cup era had yet to begin. It is not a record on which they are keen to dwell, but it is certainly one they are determined to rewrite. "I don't know if there is more pressure on the All Blacks, or whether they're feeling it more: it's not a question I can answer without being a member of their squad rather than ours," Ashley-Cooper said. "But I do know that this is the most important game of everyone's career. I'm still coming down from the Springbok match, yet I know it's even bigger this weekend. It's pure excitement, isn't it? What else do you want?"

Australia have significant injury doubts over two players: the full-back Kurtley Beale, who has a hamstring problem that has left him in "touch and go" territory, and the prop Sekope Kepu, who has ankle issues. Remarkably, the centre Pat McCabe is expected to be fit for consideration, despite injuring a shoulder for the second time in the tournament. "There's no dislocation this time, so we're very optimistic about Pat," reported the Wallaby spokesman Matt McIlraith. Flabbergasting. McCabe may not have hit the inside-centre high spots in the manner of the All Black midfielder Ma'a Nonu or the outstanding Welsh No 12 Jamie Roberts, but he loses nothing to either man when it comes to bravery.

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