Pop quiz. Identify the player Robbie Deans is describing: “He’s an outside-half who reacts. He has an enormous amount of talent and an instinct for the game, which we encourage because we don’t want a machine.”
You’re thinking Quade Cooper, aren’t you?
The mercurial fly-half whose bag of tricks excites fans and baffles opponents. Has to be Cooper, right? Close, but no cigar. The year is, in fact, 2003 and the player Deans is describing is former All Black Carlos Spencer. Then New Zealand’s assistant coach, Deans was nearing the pointy end of his first World Cup and discussing the upside to having Spencer wearing the black No 10 shirt.
The Kiwis had cruised through the preliminaries and giving ‘King Carlos’ free reign above more traditional choices like Andrew Mehrtens was lauded as a canny move. Until it sank the All Blacks’ tournament. A few days after Deans endorsed a player embracing risk, Spencer flung a long cutout pass early in the semi-final against Australia. Stirling Mortlock gratefully intercepted it and raced 80 metres to score. There was less than ten minutes on the clock but it sparked All Black panic and led to another premature RWC exit.
Much water has passed under the coaching bridge for Deans since, but eight years on he is back at a World Cup – and yet again he’s thrown his faith in an instinctive, attacking No 10. Now a head coach wearing the enemy’s shade of gold, Deans will enter RWC 2011 armed with a brash youngster who, if possible, plays with even more risk than his boyhood idol Spencer. Cooper is the man Deans has pinned his hopes upon to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for Australia.
It’s a calculated gamble. For the past few seasons Deans has slowly shuffled out more conservative Aussie playmakers like Matt Giteau and pushed all his chips in with Cooper and other youthful attacking backs. Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor have become top-shelf Test stars, but in 2011 Cooper emerged as the true game changer.
Handed the Reds No 10 shirt aged 18 in 2007, Cooper learned that most schoolboy tricks don’t cut it among men before enjoying a breakout season in 2010. But it was this year, when Cooper allied the bold tricks with a fast-maturing game sense, that the results came. With Cooper calling the shots, the Reds lifted the Super Rugby title.
It was a season that provided enough evidence for Deans that if anyone could be the point of difference for the Wallabies in a World Cup victory, it was Cooper. Throwing his lot in with Cooper and Co, Deans has unshackled the Wallabies game plan by removing the heavy emphasis on planning. His oft-repeated mantra has been to “play what’s in front of you”. In other words, do whatever you feel will work. Or as they say in Australia, have a crack. It takes a special brand of confidence to weigh risk and reward and pursue the reward by default. Spencer had it with his knee-grubbers and between-the-legs passes, and after growing up in New Zealand imitating them, Cooper has the same heart-in-mouth confidence.
“When I’m out on the field, you just look to take opportunities,” he says. “And these opportunities may only come once or twice during a game. You just have to be ready. You’ve run through the scenarios during the week. I keep running these scenarios through my head, over what could happen, including things right out of the box.
“It may not even be a simple pass. I might just think of the most extravagant thing that could happen on the field, and it’s most likely not going to happen. But if you’re ready for moments like that, then if something arises you can quickly think back to those moments.
“This opens your mind on things outside the box. When you cage yourself in too much on the field, it gets the better of you. You become one-dimensional. If you leave the options open, but at the same time know what you’re capable of, if moments do arise you’re ready to go.”
There is a grudging admiration for Cooper in New Zealand. Trepidation even. It’s no surprise. After earning a reputation often attached to brilliant attackers – he’ll win you one and lose you one – Cooper realised he needed to find middle ground between Spencer and the other ten on the field in that 2003 semi: Stephen Larkham.
“I needed to find that balance between having the tricks up your sleeve but at the same time go forward and play the team into the game, which I’ve worked hard on over the last year,” Cooper says. “Flashy doesn’t make it the whole way and Robbie has definitely reinforced that – talent can only get you so far and then hard work will do the rest. If you just do the flashy things and shy away from hard work, then you’ll be there for a week and not the next. Those sorts of players are very replaceable.”
They may be replaceable but just as instincts in rugby are nothing without hard work, pure grit is often nothing without a dash of inspiration. Spencer didn’t bring home the World Cup, but Deans has rolled the dice again in Cooper. For some, there’s no reward without risk.
This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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