Quade Cooper: JWC a great learning curve
Wallaby coach Robbie Deans has not been afraid to put his faith in youth over the last two years, with fly half Quade Cooper one of a clutch of players to have graduated from the IRB Junior World Championship to the test arena.
Cooper played in the inaugural Junior World Championship in 2008 and before the turn of the year had made his Wallaby debut off the bench against Italy in Padova, marking the occasion with his only test try to date.
The New Zealand-born fly half is in good company with captain David Pocock and Will Genia having also stepped up from the Australian Under 20 side that year to now be considered regulars in the Wallaby jersey.
Kurtley Beale joined them on Australia's European tour in November to earn his first cap against Wales, while Matt Toomua and Luke Morahan joined the Wallabies as injury replacements only months after the trio played in the 2009 edition in Japan.
Cooper, one of the most capped Australian schoolboys of all time, now has 11 test appearances to his name and started the Wallabies' four November internationals outside of Matt Giteau at inside centre.
All the better for the experience
His impressive displays for the Queensland Reds in this year's Super 14, including a 31-point haul against the Crusaders in February, have shown a new maturity and made him the top performing Australian fly half for much of the competition.
The 22-year-old has fond memories of his Junior World Championship experiences in Wales, despite the disappointment at only finishing fifth overall, and happily admits that he is a better player for his time with the Australian Under 20s.
"For a lot of us, heading to Wales and representing our country we had huge excitement, but we didn't really know what we were in for," recalled Cooper, who moved with his family to Brisbane at the age of 15.
"The experience we had was a great learning curve, and it was certainly ideal preparation for the step up to senior international rugby, which a few of us from the 2008 team were lucky enough to experience later that year.
"At the time though I looked at my Australian Under 20 jersey in exactly the same way as I was to look at my first Wallaby jersey later that year.
A huge learning curve
"I'm a much better player because of it [the Junior World Championship]. The experience at the Under 20s helped prepare me for what senior international rugby would be like, when I was selected for the Wallabies tour of Europe at the end of that year, representing your country overseas, the team environment and dynamics on tour.
"Everything was similar to what I had already experienced with the Under 20s. That just made being on tour with the Wallabies that little bit less intimidating than it might have otherwise been.
"I was also aware that I needed to take every opportunity when it comes along, because there might not be a second chance."
The 18-13 loss to England in their pool decider which meant Australia missed out on the Junior World Championship semi finals was hard for Cooper to take, but it also gave him a lesson he insists he will never forget.
"The whole experience was a big learning curve, in terms of how a team operates overseas, in a tournament, how different countries play, in terms of the various playing styles, and things like that," explained Cooper.
"The biggest single lesson though came around our preparation. I learned that if you don't turn up prepared and ready to give it everything you've got you will fail. Preparation is everything, no matter who you are playing.
An unforgettable lesson
"While we won our pool games in 2008 against Canada and Fiji fairly easily, we got comfortable and didn't do everything in our overall preparation that we should have. We got burnt for that.
"Although we were favourites to beat England we didn't deserve to go through. They prepared better, played better as a result, won the game and went on to make the final.
"The lesson from that experience, in terms of failing if you take short cuts in your preparation, is something I will never forget."
While Cooper may describe the Junior World Championship as the perfect stepping stone to the test arena, his own swift elevation to the Wallaby ranks came as something of a surprise.
The transition, though, was made easier by the presence of familiar faces in Pocock and James O'Connor, although the latter had been too young to play in the Junior World Championship in Wales.
Good enough to be a Wallaby
"No way [did I think it would happen so quickly]. I'd dreamed about being a Wallaby when I made the Under 20s, but I never thought it would happen so quickly. It was about getting an opportunity and taking it I guess.
"Dave and James were on my first Wallaby tour, then Sanchez [Genia] made the team last year. Having them about definitely helped. James being on the tour meant that I wasn't the youngest, which was great.
"But just having a few guys my age in the team who I'd played a bit with gave me confidence, both in terms of my familiarity with the way they play, and their familiarity with me, but also in giving me the confidence that I was where I belonged.
"The fact that those guys were in the team too, and I'd played with them before, was an added reassurance for me that I was good enough to be a Wallaby.
"The fact that so many of us have been selected is also a good measure of the benefits the Wallabies, and Australian Rugby in general, is getting out of the Under 20s programme.
"While it might be an age grade tournament, the dynamics are otherwise exactly the same as senior international rugby. That makes it an ideal stepping stone. We've seen that by the number of players, both from our 2008 team and others who were at that tournament, who have taken the step up since."
Age is no barrier for Deans
The fact that Wallaby coach Deans is willing to give players a chance, regardless of their age, gives a clear message to Australia's young players in Cooper's eyes and bodes well for a future as they develop with experience.
"It's an exciting time. I think we showed on our tour of Europe last year that there's some real quality in the team, and we played some good rugby. This year we need to go on from there and become more consistent.
"The fact that Robbie has been prepared to invest in young guys has not only been good for us, but for everybody. The message he has sent is clear - the team is not a closed shop and age is not a barrier.
"If he thinks you are good enough and you are prepared to work hard he will pick you. That's a great message and you can see that it's made an impression looking at all the young players who have been performing well this year in Australia's Super 14 teams."
Only time will tell how many of the 2010 Class of Australian Under 20s will follow in the footsteps of Pocock, Genia, Beale and Cooper, but the latter has a simple piece of advice for them - "enjoy the experience and work hard".
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