Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Loss a pity, more a shame

Quade Cooper may be off. Photo / Getty Images
Quade Cooper may be off. Photo / Getty Images

Australians can probably live with everything Kiwis throw at them - except pity that is and that's just about all that can be mustered watching Quade Cooper's career hurtling towards a brick wall.

The man Kiwis love to hate is hell-bent on self-inflicting irrecoverable damage and while it should be ghoulishly fascinating to see where it all ends up, it's strangely sad and distinctly concerning rather than shamefully pleasurable.

There's no warm, smug satisfaction or mileage to be had in gloating at Cooper's latest attempts to have himself thrown to the exit.

For all that he played pantomime villain last year and tied himself up in knots as a result, he's a footballer with X-factor and the touch of genius required to make life interesting.

As Cooper himself announced via Twitter: "I'm just sick of losing to the All Blacks. I hate losing."

The All Blacks aren't sick of beating the Wallabies but they do want Australia to be a genuine force: a creative, innovative side that poses more questions than they currently do.

There is little doubt that the Wallabies are a better team with Cooper at first-five. They have only beaten the All Blacks three times in the past 15 tests and in two of those victories - Hong Kong in 2010 and Brisbane last year - Cooper was the chief playmaker and somewhere near his rakish best.

If, as now seems likely, Cooper is heading to France or to the NRL, the immediate future of both the Wallabies and coach Robbie Deans is bleak. They don't seem particularly likely to play breathtaking football with Berrick Barnes installed at first-five. And nor is 'Aussie' Mike Harris going to transform them into the same attacking force they were threatening to be in 2010. Neither Kurtley Beale nor James O'Connor are best suited to that role either as both have more to offer in different positions.

The jersey is screaming out for Cooper and for him to be encouraged to play his natural game. Not only that, but he probably needs to feel that his personality can be accommodated in the set-up.

Cooper is not angelic: he's had issues off the field ranging from a charge of burglary to drink driving. He's never going to pull off Dan Carter's 'boy next door' routine, but the essence of high performance sport is that there is room for non-conformist, edgier characters. Or at least there should be - but Deans has a history of alienating colourful play-makers.

Andrew Mehrtens was left to stew at the Crusaders: bright, articulate, fun-loving - the former All Black couldn't be stereotyped and that appeared to be his crime. Matt Giteau was another who felt the wrath of Deans. The once golden boy of Wallaby rugby slowly squeezed out of the picture as much because of his big personality as his questionable ability to deliver under pressure.

And now Cooper appears destined to suffer a similar fate: unable to find happiness or contentment in an environment that he described as "toxic".

"For me to continue to improve as a player and as a person you want to be involved in the best possible environment and I feel that environment is sort of destroying me as a person and as a player," he said.

"The environment there is one that I don't feel comfortable in and if I don't feel comfortable in it, if I don't feel I can give 100 per cent for my country and for that yellow jersey, that's a very big problem."

"As the five-eighth you'd like to think you've got input into the game plans and sometimes the input goes in one ear and out the other. That's how, myself, I definitely feel. I'm an attacking player, so if you're going to put an attacking player in and expect them to play a defensive game style then do you have input?"

The Wallabies are in a serious mess - one that can't be ignored or dismissed even if they win overnight and again next week. The best, and probably most likely outcome, is that they suffer consecutive defeats which will virtually compel the Australian Rugby Union to make changes.

Cooper could yet be saved as a Wallaby if he can be persuaded to hold off making any decisions about his future until the Wallabies return from overseas.

Installing Ewen McKenzie as Wallaby coach will change everything for Cooper. McKenzie understands Cooper - knows how to manage him and get the best out of him which is something even the All Blacks would like to see.

The prospect of yet more insipid, conservative football from the Wallabies doesn't really inspire anyone - least of all the All Blacks. The relationship needs a new edge: it needs spark, it needs unpredictability - factors that Cooper brings.

It's bizarre but true that while Cooper has been subjected to unprecedented animosity from the New Zealand public, he'd be missed and even mourned if he's lost to test football at just 24.

- Herald on Sunday

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