Cooper calm, confident ahead of semifinals clash
Updated: October 12, 2011, 00:40
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) As long as he has the old ladies at the Kaikohe bowls club, his family and his Wallabies teammates in his corner, Quade Cooper has all the support he needs as he attempts to truly fulfill his role as New Zealand's Public Enemy No. 1.
Cooper has embraced the moniker he earned for having the audacity to play for his adopted homeland rather than becoming one of the All Blacks he grew up admiring as a kid kicking a ball around in Tokoroa.
He agrees that the only thing New Zealanders feared more than the All Blacks choking again and losing Sunday's World Cup semifinal would be for him to score the winning points for Australia.
"Yeah, well, that would be a tough one for them to swallow,'' he told a packed news conference Wednesday. "I'm sure that they've got a lot more things to worry about than myself.''
Sensing the chance to up the ante he continued, without prompting: "They're supposed to have won the World Cup for the past three tournaments and this is no different.
"A lot of pressure is on them to win this competition on their home soil. I'm sure they'll be more worried about how they go about their game than myself.''
Impartial observers might be confused about why, if his decision to migrate to Brisbane and play for Australia is so heinous for New Zealanders, he hasn't been charged with high treason.
Usually noted for evading dangerous situations on the field, Cooper was equally adept at sidestepping growing pressure on him following his error-prone performance in the 11-9 quarterfinal win over defending champion South Africa last weekend.
"I don't care if I have a shocker and we win as a team,'' he said. Against South Africa, "we found a way to win.
"I'd much rather walk off the field as a winning team, than walk off having the greatest game of my career and losing.''
He's known to niggle, angering All Blacks fans first by patting revered skipper Richie McCaw on the head following the Wallabies' win in Hong Kong last year. He caused outrage in New Zealand by apparently dropping a knee into McCaw in Australia's Tri-Nations clinching win in Brisbane in August, despite being exonerated by a match review committee.
He has two wins and two losses in his four test starts against the All Blacks, a team he's met fewer times than both South Africa and Italy in his 33 tests since 2008. He's confident the ledger will be 3-2 in his favor come Sunday.
"All my focus is getting to the semifinal, getting through injury free, and coming away with the points,'' he said, "... looking forward to a World Cup Grand Final.''
Earlier in the tournament, Australia's 1991 World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones had some unflattering advice for the young flyhalf. After the narrow win over the Springboks, David Campese - the star of Australia's '91-winning team - offered some more advice, suggesting Cooper would be a better player if he was more of a team man.
Campese, like Cooper, is famous for being individually brilliant, but sometimes prone to blunder.
"Coming from a guy like that ... ahm,'' Cooper said, laughing, "I tend to take the advice from my teammates and coaches that I have around me, rather than outside influences. Cheers for the advice Campo, but I've got a lot of guys around me for support.''
The 23-year-old Cooper has come to expect the boos and verbal abuse he gets from All Blacks fans, saying it's part and parcel of the tension stirred by one of the great rivalries in sport.
Rocky Elsom, Australia's no-nonsense backrow enforcer, says Cooper doesn't need any protecting from it because he can handle any pressure thrown at him. Towering lock James Horwill doesn't even hear the crowd abuse, the Australia captain saying it's just background noise. Only Cooper's grandmothers have seen the need to publicly defend him, coming out in the New Zealand media to describing him as a "good boy'' who loves children and older people.
Cooper hears the nasty comments, but doesn't take it personally.
"I know they're directed at me from what everything that has been written,'' he said. "It's not a distraction. We're obviously the closest enemy to the New Zealanders, so we're going to cop it a lot more than any other team.''
Cooper rarely follows a bad performance with a worse one, showing during the Queensland Reds' Super 15-winning campaign and the Tri-Nations that he had the ability to rebound. On Sunday, he'll likely line up opposite Aaron Cruden, the third-choice All Blacks flyhalf drafted in after star playmaker Dan Carter and initial backup Colin Slade were ruled out of the tournament with groin injuries.
Cruden got one over Cooper when the Wellington Hurricanes beat the Reds this season - one of only two losses all year for the Queenslanders. So Cooper doesn't see his rival's lack of test experience as a factor.
"I don't see myself as having an upper hand over him - there's 14 other blokes on the field. Never in a game do you go directly head to head with one person,'' Cooper said. "In saying that, he's a good player, he's got enough experience through Super rugby and the amount of tests he's played, he won't be coming in with any lack of confidence into this semifinal.''
Confidence is something Cooper doesn't appear to lack in any way, although he admits his decision to play for Australia instead of his native New Zealand when he hit his late teens was the result of an early separation from his family. His parents, two younger brothers and three sisters didn't move to Australia immediately when Cooper crossed the Tasman after earning a scholarship at an exclusive Brisbane boarding school.
"For them to make the trip over to Australia as well, I found it a pretty stupid move on my behalf if I was to move back to New Zealand away from my family again,'' he said. "I found when I did move to Australia, I was very homesick from my family. Once they moved over, the decision was pretty much made then and there.''
He still has tiny pockets of fans here, up near the Bay of Islands and down in the Waikato, and used the news conference as a forum to thank them for standing by him while 4 million other Kiwis make him the target of their animosity.
"It's a good opportunity to thank everyone in New Zealand for the support I've got,'' he said. "Friends and family in my hometown, Tokoroa, and also friends and family from Kaikohe, where my Nanna is from. She sends me a lot of text messages that all her friends from the local bowls club are right behind me. So that gives you a very heartwarming boost of confidence.''