Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Patrick McKendry: Cooper missing in action when Reds needed him most

Quade Cooper. Photo / Getty Images
Quade Cooper. Photo / Getty Images

Are Quade Cooper's best years as a rugby player behind him?

On the face of it, the question appears perverse. He is only 25 and his attacking talent has been plain to see this season. But the other side of the coin is this: When was the last time he stood up and played a leading role in a big match?

He went missing against the Crusaders, of that there is little doubt. His coach Ewen McKenzie backed him afterwards, saying he was happy with Cooper's performance and the new Wallabies coach will more than likely include the playmaker in his Rugby Championship squad for the test series starting next month.

But if ever he needed a bit of razzle dazzle from Cooper, this was the time - his last as coach of the Reds. Amidst the pantomime booing of the AMI Stadium crowd, Cooper appeared to get stage fright. He hardly ran the ball, his default options either kick or pass. He wasn't so much a villain as invisible.

The overwhelming conclusion was that he lacked the guts for the fight; the part-time boxer appeared to throw the towel in. The Crusaders appeared to sense it too - even little Zac Guildford's eyes lit up when he saw Cooper in the defensive line (a rare thing these days).

It was a disappointing performance because Cooper has played well this season for the Reds. He engineered his team's victory over the defending champion Chiefs in Hamilton in April, showing his full repertoire of tricks but backing it up with a bit of steel too.

After that victory at Waikato Stadium, McKenzie - not yet Wallabies coach, but for most observers the coach-in-waiting - was asked whether he would have Cooper in his Australia team. This was just after Robbie Deans had left the Tokoroa-born player out of his initial squad for the British and Irish Lions tour.

"I've got a lot of time for Quade as a footballer," McKenzie replied. "But I don't pick the team. He's in my team and I'm happy about that. If he's not in the Wallabies he'll be in my team rather than playing against the British and Irish Lions so I get the win there anyway."

One performance isn't going to change that view, but, for outsiders, the flaws are beginning to outweigh Cooper's genius.

He went to pieces in the World Cup semi-final two years ago against the All Blacks and the last time he performed in a sudden-death match was probably several months earlier when the Reds beat the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final in Brisbane.

True, the Reds forwards were battered at AMI Stadium. Skipper James Horwill - a key Wallabies lock - was dragged early in the second half. Even Will Genia, one of the best halfbacks in the world, couldn't mount a resistance. But the absence of any discernable enthusiasm from Cooper was strange.

As for the booing, yes it was a bit tiresome, but please, go easy on the lectures. If you pay your money to show up, you deserve to have your say. Don't we need a bit more colour at matches? Wasn't that one of the "take-outs" from hosting the World Cup?

A bigger issue must be the 4000 empty seats in the 17,500-seater stadium in what is likely to be the Crusaders' final match of the season. If the Christchurch public aren't all that keen on rugby any more, is a new, covered, and extremely expensive stadium in the city really necessary? Or is that what they are waiting for?


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Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby writer Patrick McKendry began his journalism career 20 years ago and has worked in newspapers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He worked in a communications role on his return here before joining APN before the 2011 World Cup.

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