Cooper, Cruden in flyhalf World Cup semifinal duel
Updated: October 13, 2011, 21:04
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Very little is predictable about Sunday's Rugby World Cup semifinal between Australia and New Zealand, in part because very little is predictable about the men who may shape the course of the match from flyhalf.
Perhaps the easiest way to interpret the tactical intentions of any team is to study the player with the No. 10 on his back, to know his nature and his instincts. In some cases even the most cursory study can make team tactics an open book but in the case of Australia's flyhalf Quade Cooper and New Zealand's Aaron Cruden the signs are much less readable.
Cooper, because he is so enigmatic, and Cruden, because he is so inexperienced, make intriguing but not revealing objects of analysis.
A number of factors cloud any close examination of these flyhalves. On the surface, Cooper is knowable: He is an instinctive attacking player who looks for opportunities from any part of the field, who takes risks, who is driven by confidence which is close to recklessness.
He's a moderate defender, not fearful but not inclined to hurl himself into tackles, and the Wallabies game has been developed to accommodate that.
His confidence may have been knocked by his sub-par performance in Australia's 11-9 quarterfinal win over South Africa, but it seems unlikely.
The hostility directed towards Cooper by New Zealanders throughout the tournament hasn't fazed him and it appears his solid sense of self-confidence is undented by his quarterfinal experience.
"All athletes ... you're going to have games where you don't play your best in,'' he said. "The most positive thing is to give 100 percent for my team and give everything for my country. If we come away with the win, I'm not too bothered in how I play.''
Cooper doesn't dwell on things or easily fall prey to self-doubt. The final whistle blows, he showers and moves on.
"My head was fine after the (Springboks) game,'' he said. "I was happy as Larry, sitting in the changeroom celebrating a quarterfinal win and looking forward to playing a massive semifinal against the No. 1 team in the world, on their own soil.
"I'd much rather walk off the field as a winning team, than walk off having the greatest game of my career and losing the game.''
Cooper's teammates have lost no confidence in the 23-year-old playmaker and their support for him is revealing. Some test teams might be less patient, less supportive of a young player with Cooper's brashness, who exposes them to risk and whose performances can be erratic.
That the Wallabies are so accepting, even encouraging of his risky style, signals respect for a rare if imperfect talent.
"He's never had two bad games in a row ... ever,'' Wallabies and Queensland Reds teammate Anthony Fainga'a said. "You say Quade had a bad game but he's got us into a semifinal of the World Cup. Even his not-so-good games are still good games.''
Cruden is a harder study. He has the same attacking instinct as Cooper and a similar resume: In one of the small ironies of Sunday's contest, Cooper was born closer to Eden Park - at Tokoroa, about 200 kilometers south of Auckland - than Cruden, who was born at Palmerston North, another 300 kilometers further south.
Cruden was an world junior player of the year, an early developer who made his mark in age grades but graduated quickly to senior level. His career was twice threatened by serious illness, by tuberculosis when he was 18 and testicular cancer when he was 19. After surgery for his cancer, he has a clean bill of health.
He rose with remarkable speed into the All Blacks team, making his debut from the bench in a lopsided win over Ireland in June last year. His first five test appearances were as a replacement and he was offered his first start, when star flyhalf Dan Carter was injured, against Australia in Sydney in September last year.
It wasn't a great success. He struggled to lift his game to test level, made elementary mistakes at kickoffs and didn't produce the tactical kicking game the sport requires at its highest level. Colin Slade came off the bench to steer the All Blacks to a 23-22 win and immediately took over from Cruden as New Zealand's preferred backup to Carter.
An injury to Carter led to Cruden's recall to the New Zealand World Cup squad and an injury to Slade propelled him into its quarterfinal against Argentina after only 33 minutes: His first test appearance in more than a year.
"Last week he was skateboarding round Palmerston North, having a couple of beers and watching us play. Now he's the No. 1 No. 10 in the country,'' All Blacks coach Graham Henry said.
Cruden coped. He made the occasional error - he is sometimes too intent on making a break through an inside channel to immediately figure how to develop the break with the help of supporting players. But, like Cooper, he at least has an eye for a gap and the confidence to take one.
Cooper has empathy for Cruden and his sudden elevation into a key role in one of the most important matches New Zealand has played.
"He's in a difficult position that he's come in so late,'' Cooper said. "But he's played a couple of tests for the All Blacks now. He would have been training hard knowing that there's a possibility of having to be called up.
"I'm sure he'll be doing everything he can to be in the right frame of mind. I'm sure all his teammates are doing everything they can to help him out.''
Cooper, who says he admires Cruden, plays down the individual contest.
"I don't see myself as having an upper hand over him - there's 14 other blokes on the field,'' he said. "Never in a game do you go directly head to head with one person. 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.''