All Blacks target Cooper, and it pays off
Updated: October 16, 2011, 09:23
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) The main recurring question of the pre-match phase answered itself with the first act of the World Cup semifinal between the two leading teams in rugby.
Yes, Quade Cooper was affected by the pressure and close scrutiny of his decision to turn his back on his native New Zealand and play for Australia, something he was reminded of with boos and jeers every time he touched the ball, and the cheers for his every mistake.
Cooper took the kickoff in front of 60,087 fans at Eden Park, and put it out on the full. It started a period of seven minutes when the Australians didn't get into the attacking half. The Australians were never really in contention in a 20-6 loss.
The 23-year-old Cooper thought the experience would do him good.
"The first thing is the obvious one: everyone was trying to get at me personally,'' he said. "I definitely think I'm going to be better off for it. The way everybody came at me from all angles, whether it be media, the crowd, trying to make a big buzz out of it - I got used to it and I think I drew a lot of confidence out of it.
"I'm sure this will come around again and I'll be better off for it.''
He didn't take offense at his treatment by the crowd, either.
"It's been the case throughout the whole tournament, from the minute I stepped off the plane to the minute I'll get on the plane,'' he said. "I'm not in a position to point fingers about that and have a cry about it, mate.
"It's there, it's going to happen and it has happened. It was just about getting on and doing the best I could for my team. I feel I did that.''
Robbie Deans, a former New Zealand All Blacks fullback who took over as Australia coach in 2008, put a lot of faith in the mercurial Cooper to direct a young, talented backline against the best in the business. He failed in back-to-back matches.
The Australians scrambled to cover for his errors in the 11-9 quarterfinal win over defending champion South Africa last week. This time, there was nowhere to hide him in the first half.
The flashes of individual brilliance that were hallmarks of his season as he helped guide the Queensland Reds to the Super 15 title, and in patches in the series-deciding Tri-Nations victory over the All Blacks in August, deserted him almost entirely on Sunday.
The All Blacks targeted him all night, whether he was attacking or defending. They found their mark.
After his kickoff error, he fumbled a high ball, knocking on and giving possession back to New Zealand which eventually led to a penalty on the 40-meter line - lucky for him, Weepu missed his third shot at goal and it didn't cost him too badly.
He cleanly took a high kick which his opposite number Aaron Cruden directed at him deep on the right wing in the 25th, then was smashed by Richard Kahui the moment he hit the ground.
He tried a chip and chase in the 26th, but only succeeded in giving possession back to New Zealand.
Two phases later, after the Australians had earned a turnover, he put another kick into touch on the full.
He settled his nerves with a well taken dropped goal in the 32nd to close the margin to five points, but it wasn't the full reward for Australia's rare foray into the New Zealand quarter.
In the second half, he was steadily grew more confident but was still unable to ignite the freewheeling attack that Australia needed to break the All Blacks defense. The final indignity, Cooper's friend Sonny Bill Williams dropped him with a shoulder charge with four minutes remaining, earning a yellow card in the process.
Berrick Barnes, who came on in midfield in the second half, said Cooper was a marked man.
The All Blacks "obviously targeted him and they targeted him pretty well,'' Barnes said. "Everyone singles him out, they have the whole time, but as a team we weren't there tonight.''
Cooper said he wouldn't be put off by the experience.
"I am who I am, I'm going to play the way that I play, and whether you like it or not that's me,'' he said. "I never walk off the field with any regrets.
"Everyone's pretty down from losing a semifinal in a World Cup. For a lot of the boys it was their first World Cup and I don't think it will be their last. I guess, looking to the future now, we can't get this game back but we can look forward to what's to come.''
All Blacks coach Graham Henry said the boos directed by New Zealanders at Cooper would cease when he earned their respect.
"I think Quade has brought a wee bit on himself as you probably realize,'' Henry said, reflecting on Cooper's previous niggling of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. "He's got a few miles to make up and he probably made up a bit tonight.
"But I think you've got to earn that respect. He lost some of that respect for his actions in previous test matches, that's natural. But he tried very hard tonight and kept his nose clean tonight and he gained some respect.''