AUCKLAND, 14 Oct. - While much has been made of Quade Cooper’s less than impressive quarter-final showing against South Africa, the performance should not have come as a surprise to those who have been keeping a close eye on the Australian fly half throughout Rugby World Cup 2011.
Cooper has demonstrated flashes of attacking brilliance over the last month but his game has also been consistently punctuated by instances of risky option-taking, poor kicking and a lack of cohesion with his back line.
The 23-year-old has yet to produce the complete 80-minute performance that his team needs from him if they are to overcome the might of the All Blacks in Sunday’s semi-final at Eden Park.
Cooper’s failure to hit form cannot be attributed to a lack of time on the field. Along with Adam Ashley-Cooper, he is one of only two Australians to have played all 400 minutes of their World Cup campaign so far.
As the tournament has worn on, it has become clear that the complete faith shown in him by coach Robbie Deans is more based on the quality of Cooper’s performances prior to stepping off the plane in New Zealand.
Yet blind faith in the abilities of the fly half fails to recognise that the mental and emotional challenge he faces at RWC 2011 is something new. For the first time in his career he has two roles to play.
Firstly there is the role to which he is accustomed - Quade Cooper the enigmatic playmaker. On his day he is one of the most dangerous men on a rugby field. He impressively guided the Queensland Reds to a Super 15 title earlier in the year and was pivotal in the Wallabies’ successful 2011 Tri Nations campaign.
But then there is Quade Cooper the pantomime villain. Born in New Zealand and with a recent history of run-ins with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, Cooper has attracted the ire of the Kiwi population. The playmaker has had to accept that his every touch of the ball at the tournament will be met by a chorus of boos.
The endless scrutiny of the New Zealand media and public has ensured that Cooper will not escape the label of ‘public enemy No.1’ no matter how hard he tries.
And there is evidence that the mental and emotional pressure of this newfound role has taken a serious toll on his on-field performances.
Cooper has only managed two line-breaks in five matches. For a man whose reputation is built on attacking prowess, this is not up to standard, especially given that Australia played weaker teams such as Russia and USA in the pool stage.
Both his goal kicking and tactical kicking have been unusually wayward. He slotted only four goals from eight attempts early in the tournament before being relieved by the more reliable boot of teammate James O’Connor.
It is no secret that Cooper’s biggest weakness is defence but his tackle statistics are still worth consideration. The boy from Tokoroa has made 12 tackles in his five matches. By comparison, All Blacks fly half Dan Carter made 17 tackles in just the two matches he managed before succumbing to injury.
And while it must be accepted that Cooper drops to full back in the Australian defensive line and therefore avoids making the same proportion of tackles as a front-line defender, it also highlights how significant it is that he still managed to notch up eight missed tackles against South Africa.
So what can Deans do to help his under-fire fly half find form against the All Blacks?
The most glaringly obvious option would be to name fellow playmaker Berrick Barnes at inside centre for the semi-final encounter. By adding a second ball-playing option outside Cooper, the defensive attention of the All Blacks would be divided between two threats and Cooper would theoretically find himself with more time and space to work in.
There is no doubt that time and space are the two main ingredients that Cooper needs to relieve the pressure and regain his attacking magic.
Moreover it is hard to ignore the quality that Barnes has brought to the table in his limited opportunities at RWC 2011.
In the Wallabies match against Russia, Barnes calmly engineered a number of tries for his outside backs while also scoring two himself.
Against South Africa it was Barnes’ tactical touch-finder buried in the Springboks' half that led to the 70th-minute penalty that saw Australia regain the lead and go on to win the match. It was a simple play but it was executed superbly in the heat of battle - a sign that Barnes is up to the task of playing Cooper’s deputy.
But if all else fails and Deans’ faith in his fly half finally gives in, Kurtley Beale’s hamstring injury has unexpectedly opened another window of opportunity - the number 15 jersey.
After all, Cooper has already spent the tournament defending at full back. Maybe that is where his attacking mojo has been hiding all this time.
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