The New Zealand-born playmaker is running out of time – he either proves he can defend in the frontline at test level, or he settles for life as a very good Super Rugby player who for want of an effective front-on tackling technique never quite made it at international level.
It’s a career-defining moment for Cooper – his first start as Wallabies flyhalf in almost a year.
Some would say Cooper is lucky to even be in the side, his international career only revived thanks to the appointment of his mentor at the Reds, Ewen McKenzie, to the coaching job.
There’s some truth in that. McKenzie has been an unabashed admirer of Cooper’s attacking capabilities and, at the Reds at least, has been prepared to overlook his turnstile tackling by allowing him to switch to fullback in defence.
Will McKenzie, as national coach, make that same concession against the Springboks on Saturday? McKenzie won’t say.
“You’ll see on the night,” he told journalists this week.
Cooper has been equally tight-lipped.
“You can’t give all your secrets away,” he said. “You have to keep something for the game.”
The mystery of where Cooper defends is a big talking point leading into the match and even has the Springboks stumped.
They’re expecting James O’Connor to come off his wing to defend for Cooper.
It’s an understandable line of thought given the selection of the Wallabies’ most potent attacking weapon Israel Folau at full-back.
McKenzie is unlikely to burden Folau with any instruction other than ‘get the ball in your hands and run’. And, besides, Folau doesn’t need a job-sharing arrangement against a team likely to keep him busy enough with high balls.
In fact, the only possibility that hasn’t been explored in depth is the most obvious one: Cooper actually defending his channel like every other international flyhalf.
It ought to be the obvious solution. But then again, we are talking about Cooper, who has rarely been a clear-cut fit for many things on and off the pitch.
The timing of Cooper’s re-introduction is a double-edged sword. He comes into a side under immense pressure to win after three straight losses. A fourth could well tip supporters over the edge, leaving Cooper once again exposed to his harshest critics.
While a loss could kill off his career once and for all, it could also be his last chance to bury the perception that he can’t tackle to save his life.
Against these psychological pressures stands Cooper’s record against the Springboks – 7-2 in nine tests, including five wins from his last five.
Unlike the All Blacks, Cooper can truly claim to have the Boks’ number. So in that sense, provided he can handle the pressure of a must-win test match, the timing couldn’t be better.
Speaking of timing, it’s always worth noting when Cooper’s manager Khoder Nasser surfaces.
The controversial player agent, who also represents former All Black Sonny Bill Williams, rarely speaks in public these days.
Yet, Nasser was out there this week pushing a story about Cooper knocking back a A$1.8 million ($1.64 million) deal to play in Europe so he could prove himself again as a Wallaby.
“Quade definitely wanted to prove a few things in Australia. He knocked back a great offer in France,” Nasser told Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper.
Nasser went on to talk about how Cooper had become tougher because of his foray into the fight game earlier this year.
“Boxing makes you look at yourself. You have to be real because it’s only you making the call on how hard you train and being honest about your weaknesses,” Nasser said.
“And you’ve got to have balls to stick your head in any ring,” he said in closing.
It was a curious interview. Nasser only talks to journalists when it suits him to do so.
The perception Cooper can’t tackle is bad for Nasser’s business, though, as it lowers his client’s market value, whether it be in Australia or France. It’s in Cooper’s best financial interests to tackle in the frontline.
Perhaps that’s why Nasser has surfaced, to send out a message to the marketplace: ‘My client can tackle. Wait and see’. ($1 = 1.0957 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)