Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Rugby World Cup: Cooper thrives on attention

Quade Cooper says he's been buoyed by the 'heart-warming' support from his old hometown of Tokoroa, family and friends - including the text messages from his loyal and outspoken granny Millie in Kaikohe. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Quade Cooper says he's been buoyed by the 'heart-warming' support from his old hometown of Tokoroa, family and friends - including the text messages from his loyal and outspoken granny Millie in Kaikohe. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There's something about Quade.

When Quade Cooper is in the room, a lot of other rugby life stops.

"Quade must be great for you guys," a visiting journalist observes. Given the chance, a high percentage of media questions are either to Quade or about Quade.

His running battles with - or provocation of - Richie McCaw helped place the Tokoroa-raised Cooper as public enemy No 1, although this may be somewhat contrived - especially when compared with the genuine scorn heaped on an under-arming Aussie cricket team decades ago.

There is an element of duty rather than outrageous venom to the catcalls against Cooper, although not entirely.

Yes, the crowd gives Cooper the customary boos, some intended to be off-putting and many heartfelt.

But Cooper has clawed his way back into a few hearts.

A colleague says: "I wished the worst for him during the Tri-Nations - I think it was that snotty look. But I've come around - he admits he's the villain and basically says 'let's have some fun with it'."

Although in Sunday's World Cup semifinal it will be a case of take no prisoners for the All Black supporters in the Eden Park crowd.

His management company stablemate, All Black Sonny Bill Williams, believes "when people are hating on him that much it just shows how good a talent he is".

Cooper has certainly copped a lot, yet he fronts up, takes the endless questioning in his stride and can spot a humorous opening, pressure and all.

Yesterday, when told Wallaby legend David Campese, the king of maverick footballers, had advised him to be more of a team player, Cooper said: "Coming from a guy like that ..."

This drew a decent laugh from the pack.

His teammates are often asked how Cooper deals with the pressure.

Aussie loose forward Rocky Elsom says hostile reactions "come with the territory" so are not distracting.

Captain James Horwill described crowd noise as a generic din to highly focused players, meaning messages don't get through. The Australian players and officials repeatedly talk about how strong Cooper is.

Cooper himself floats on by. You may be mad at him, but he ain't mad at you.

"I know it is directed at me from everything that is written," he says.

"Australia is the closest enemy so we're going to cop it. They can do whatever they like and I don't try and control anyone else's life. I don't feel it is affecting me."

Beyond the rhetoric, there is the question of whether Cooper can rediscover his ability to bewilder opponents instead of the Wallaby supporters.

With Kurtley Beale almost certain to miss the semifinal because of a hamstring injury, Cooper's attacking wizardry is doubly important.

Robbie Deans will search for the buttons to press, and selecting Berrick Barnes is one option as a playmaking complement to Cooper's more erratic and threatening methods.

An inhibiting factor is that the risks Cooper thrives on, and even invented, are ripe for an indelible place in history - the way Carlos Spencer is remembered for a certain pass in Sydney eight years ago.

World Cup pressure can cap attacking genius. The brilliantly organised and briefed World Cup defences don't need a second invitation.

But if any team is built to break these shackles, or must break them, it is Australia on Sunday, and Cooper is the bloke with the key no matter what his previous form. Australia cannot believe they will defend their way to victory at Eden Park.

While the Aussie camp claims Cooper doesn't do two bad games in succession, desperate South African and All Black World Cup teams can easily prove otherwise. Should he nail a winning score against the All Blacks, Cooper agreed "it would be a tough [for New Zealand] to swallow".

Not for all New Zealanders though.

He's been buoyed by the "heartwarming" support from his old hometown, family and friends, with his outspokenly supportive granny Millie's text messages which relay the backing of her Kaikohe bowls mates.

Migration and professionalism have thrown up new twists on the old sporting rivalry, and enemy territory is also home away from home for Cooper, who left New Zealand aged 13 and considered returning for rugby purposes five years later.

Loyalties aside, he can be the most marvellous of all rugby players to watch.

In a long history of transtasman sporting rivalry, Cooper is creating a unique legacy of his own and he'll no doubt push his way further into lore whichever way it turns out on Sunday.

NZ v AUSTRALIA

Eden Park, 9pm Sunday

- NZ Herald

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