Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper's attacking gifts are well known, but how would his defence stand up in the NRL?
Photo: Getty Images
A little over a year ago, in the lead up to the 2011 World Cup and on the back of a magnificent Super Rugby campaign from the Reds, we were all toasting the exuberant talents of Quade Cooper as the key to unlocking the All Blacks on their own turf.
Since then it's been one long stretch of misery, injury and ignominy for the 24-year-old. In the last month his comments about Robbie Deans' coaching of the Wallabies, followed by the disapproval of teammates Sekope Kepu and Drew Mitchell, have served to alienate him among the same Australian rugby fraternity that was up in arms over his treatment by the New Zealand public last year.
And while his future remains vague, there does now exist the firmest possibility yet that he will make the switch to rugby league – and possibly in time for next year. One much-publicised scenario may be that agent Khoder Nasser manoeuvres a move for Cooper to play alongside bosom-buddy Sonny Bill Williams at the Roosters. Another is for Cooper to assume the problematic No.6 jersey for the Broncos.
But as he ponders a potential code-switch, we can ask the question: would Quade Cooper actually be a success in rugby league?
In rugby, a particular brand of defence has evolved that completely swallows Cooper, but it is one he is unlikely to encounter in the halves in rugby league. Abrasive back-rowers effectively gang up on him along with opposing halves. That's up to four or five players in his face for an entire match.
In league, that sort of defensive effort cannot be afforded on one individual: thus there will be more space for Cooper, a lack of which has been his biggest problem in the last year. Given the opportunity for plenty of one-on-ones, of which there are more in league than in union, he may thrive.
Needless to say, however, Cooper would need to work off the go-forward of a dominant pack (Sea Eagles? Cowboys? Bulldogs?). And once a defensive line is scattered by strong forwards, perhaps in the latter stages of games, one can imagine few existing NRL players who would be able to exploit it like Cooper, with his acceleration, sidestep and sheer gall.
To some, rugby league has become overly conservative in recent years, with individual brilliance increasingly squeezed out in favour of consistency, physicality and strategy (with a few notable exceptions: Barba, Shaun Johnson, Marshall et al).
Look at premiers Melbourne Storm, who pair a suffocating and joyless pack with a brainy, strong, but not very imaginative halfback in Cooper Cronk. The NRL as a spectator sport needs few improvements, but one would be the addition of a player who is not afraid to experiment with the bizarre and high-risk.
Need it be spelled out? Cooper's defence is not even NSW Cup standard let alone up to the heat of the NRL.
That said, this is one area of his game that has improved since he returned from injury in May. The sight of him putting in some big hits in a Super Rugby match against the Highlanders was frankly weird.
But despite this, he will always need some degree of protecting and/or hiding in rugby, particularly at international level. And that won't translate to league at all.
In the NRL, every player must carry his weight in defence, with those who can't swiftly jettisoned by coaches. To have to protect Cooper would seriously disrupt any side's defensive cohesion. His weak tackling and sometime wayward positioning should be a potential deal-breaker for many NRL clubs pondering a move.
Another point is that in union, his trademark long, spiralling passes along the backline act as a surprise tactic, a move to quickly get the ball away from hard-tackling forwards. This vital aspect of his game would be redundant in league, where hard-tackling forwards do indeed lurk on the edges, and where a long cross-field pass does not necessarily mean finding extra space. That's a fairly significant tool in his box immediately negated.
Because of his defensive deficiencies it would be a hugely brave move for any club to take Cooper on, what with salary cap pressures, to the degree that you can't really see it happening.
However, for entertainment it would be the best thing to happen to the NRL in years. As an outspoken personality he would most likely be adored by fans and the media, while his playing style is so out of sync with current NRL modes it can't help but be fascinating to see how he fits in. As ever with Cooper, it is likely to be dazzlingly spectacular or a dismal car-crash. There will be no middle ground.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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