Rugby: Is Quade Cooper still worth booing?

By Michael Brown

Australia's Quade Cooper has been public enemy No 1 for many years. Photo / NZ Herald
Australia's Quade Cooper has been public enemy No 1 for many years. Photo / NZ Herald

Most New Zealand rugby fans probably thought they had seen the last of Quade Cooper, given he had moved to France, but the playmaker is in line to start for Australia against the All Blacks on Saturday after qutting Toulon 12 months into his two-year contract.

It begs the question: will he still be booed? Do we still care about a player whose skill and influence has waned or is it just the default mechanism? Former Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie even said in 2013 most Kiwis don't even know why they were booing Cooper.

The 28-year-old was public enemy No 1 in the eyes of New Zealand fans, particularly in 2010 and 2011 when even the King of Calm, Richie McCaw, was riled by the antics of the mercurial first five-eighths.

Cooper, for whatever reason, went after McCaw. Perhaps he thought he could rattle the All Blacks captain. In Hong Kong in 2010, charged into the side of a ruck and smashed McCaw out the back. The All Black skipper retaliated by kicking his studs into Cooper's knee. When the Wallabies scored the winning try on fulltime, Cooper fired in and again hit a prostrate McCaw late and hard on the head.

The following year in Brisbane, it was apparent that Cooper was still harbouring resentment towards the skipper, with the first-five chasing McCaw around Suncorp. After 54 minutes of swinging his handbag, Cooper finally struck gold when he was getting up from a ruck and drove his knee straight into McCaw's face. It looked deliberate and nasty, and he was cited but found not guilty.

It meant Cooper was reviled by many on these shores during the 2011 World Cup. He was booed every time his face went up on the big screen and heckled when he touched the ball.

McCaw and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen even asked fans to move on from their hatred of Cooper but it wasn't that easy.

After all, as McCaw wrote in his book published last year: "The intent of what he was trying to do [when he kneed McCaw in the face] pissed me off more than the execution. Shortly after that happened, I was carrying and should have passed, but I lit up and I saw Quade standing in front of me and clattered into him instead.

"I was disappointed in myself doing that," he added, "letting it get personal. There's no need - players like Quade get sorted. Sooner or later they get their beans."

Perhaps it was karma, but Cooper suffered a serious knee injury early in the third and fourth place playoff against Wales in the 2011 World Cup at Eden Park. As he was helped from the field in obvious pain, it was about the only time the booing stopped.

Cooper has been less relevant to New Zealand fans since then because he's never really been the same player.

Veteran writer Spiro Zavos described Cooper as "the 'Picasso of the Pass,' with dazzling speed of hand" but who also has "a dark side to this genius". "In tough situations for his team he disappeared from the battle."

There has also been the controversial moments alongside his inconsistent form and injuries. He was in conflict with the Australian Rugby Union over the size of his contract and was left out of for the 2013 Lions tour after tweeting in 2012 that the Wallabies' environment was "toxic" under Robbie Deans. He considered a switch to rugby league, with the Eels reportedly offering him $1.5 million over three years, dabbled in boxing, fighting on the undercards of his friends and stable-mates Sonny Bill Williams and Anthony Mundine, and last year joined French club Toulon.

He was very good at times but in January, Cooper and former All Black Ma'a Nonu were criticised by Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, who said switching from former England first-five Jonny Wilkinson to Cooper was like "going from foie gras to pate".

Cooper is expected to start at second five-eighths for Australia in Wellington on Saturday but it's more circumstances than form with Matt Giteau, Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua all out.

He's still a polarising figure and some may boo him because that's what people have always done.

"He's brought it on himself but probably it would be good if we all got over it," Hansen said in 2013.

Cooper will be ready for any manner of reception. A trawl through his Twitter account reveals a philosophical side.

"Good days give you happiness & bad days give you experience," he said, borrowing a line used by basketballer Michael Jordan. "Both are essential."

- NZ Herald

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