By Buford Balony
It goes against all his instincts and frankly he admits he finds it boring, but Wallabies five-eighth Quade Cooper accepts there are times when the team needs him to play percentage rugby.
Cooper started the Italy Test in Florence on Saturday playing rugby in much the same vein as Adam Gilchrist played cricket at the WACA in the third Test of the 2007 Ashes series, when he smashed a century off just 57 balls.
Cooper was in murderous form, finding holes in the Italian defence seemingly at will, and for a moment there it seemed the Wallabies really were going to rack up a cricket score.
“When we’re playing that sort of footy, it seems like perfect football,” Cooper admitted.
It couldn’t last and it didn’t.
After setting a better than point-a-minute pace for the opening eight minutes, the Wallabies conceded a needless penalty for interference when they were launching a full-on attack.
Italian winger Mirco Bergamasco kicked the goal and suddenly the magic spell was broken. Try as they might, and both Cooper and the Wallabies over-tried, they could not reignite their game and fell into careless, costly errors.
It was only when they took stock during the half-time break and realised that sometimes a team needs to recognise its limitations that they got their game back on the air, albeit on a lower frequency.
“It’s just like Test cricket,” Cooper said. “You can’t expect a Test match to be like a Twenty20 match and it’s the same in rugby. You can’t expect a Test match to be like Super 14 or sevens every game. There are going to be some parts of the game that will be like that, when you get to razzle-dazzle and do flick passes but at other times you might have to play the percentages. It’s finding that balance.”
The 22-year-old self-described “slogger”, admits it isn’t easy for him, finding that balance.
“This whole year has been a big learning curve for me. Learning when to hold back was a big key in the Italian game because there was so much space and I was getting so excited, wanting to run everything.
“But when we just pulled back and didn’t play as much it worked out for us. I always like to be on the front foot and attacking, so when you do have to pull back I find that quite hard and a bit boring as well. Yet to be the complete player you have to have all those things in your armoury and that’s what I’m working towards.”
Cooper seems to be something of a magnet for criticism. No sooner had he shown he could address the defensive frailties exposed by England the week before, he did not miss a tackle against Italy in a man-of-the-match performance, than he has come under fire for taking the edge off centre Berrick Barnes’s attack, just as he supposedly had done to Matt Giteau.
Certainly the Wallabies are missing his almost intuitive combination with the injured Digby Ioane although Cooper showed against Italy that he and fullback Kurtley Beale are in the throes of creating an almost mesmerising understanding.
Time and again they bounced off each other, creating opportunities out of nothing.
“It’s just starting to happen that way,” Cooper admitted. “It’s the way the combinations are going. The longer we play together, the better we read each other. He’s someone I really love playing with. Being instinctive, we’re on the same page to start with.”
Watching them at times, it’s as though the Wallabies have reactivated two-thirds of the Ella brothers. But then again, there was a time for Mark Ella and a time for Paul McLean.
The question is: can Cooper harness the best of both of them, Ella’s brilliance and McLean’s control?
Buford Balony says: Isn’t every game of union boring. Berrick Barnes kicking for goal from halfway, I rest my case.