‘I’m just having fun’

GARETH DUNCAN, in SA Rugby magazine, asks Quade Cooper about the Reds’ revival, his attacking innovations, and the battle for the Wallabies No 10 jersey.

You made your senior provincial debut in 2006 while you were still in high school and earned your first Test cap two years later. Did you expect everything to happen so quickly?
You never want success to come too easily, but I’ve had to work really hard for the things I’ve achieved. At 17, I signed a senior contract with the Reds and I knew if I could keep progressing at the rate I was, I would get my Super Rugby and Test debuts at an early age. Luckily that has worked out for me.

Has rugby union always been your game?
I’ve been playing union since I was four and started league when I was seven. I carried on with both until I was 17, so I used to have a full week of sport. I would train from Monday to Friday, then play matches every Saturday and Sunday. I always wanted to have the ball in my hand. My mom would yell at me for playing with the ball in the house and breaking windows. That’s the love I’ve always had for the game.

Why did you join the Reds?
At 15, they offered me a junior deal and I was over the moon. I was also selected for an Australian youth elite squad that year and I knew it was the first step towards going professional. I would sponge all the information I could get off the senior players whenever I had the opportunity. I also love Brisbane. My family’s there and the people are great. I love the place, just like I’m drawn to Cape Town. I received an offer to join the Force when I was 17, but I was too young to leave my family and move to the other side of the country.

Have you always played flyhalf?
When I was younger, I was picked at fullback and flyhalf, but mostly fullback. I enjoyed the space I got at the back and I would do the Christian Cullen side-steps and runs on the counter-attack. I also had a few runs at inside centre later in my career, but I preferred flyhalf. As I got older, I wanted to be in the driver’s seat. At senior level, a player needs to be played in one position so he can focus on it.

Berrick Barnes’ move from the Reds to the Waratahs in 2009 was your opportunity to establish yourself at 10.
I enjoyed playing with Barnesy and I learnt a great deal from him. We were rotated in the flyhalf-inside centre channel regularly and that wasn’t easy as I didn’t have the chance to settle. So when he left, I had to make the step up to first-choice flyhalf. I needed guidance to make it work and now I’m enjoying it.

You’re known as a maverick. What’s your philosophy on the game?
I’m just having fun. I’m not scared to do training or backyard moves during a match. Players tend to leave those things out of their game when they turn pro, but they should express themselves more. I throw passes or kick grubbers that the opposition wouldn’t expect. It’s great when I pull it off. If I don’t, I just work harder on it during practice. I’m hoping kids will emulate me and maybe add something extra to their game. That will help rugby to evolve. Look at basketball. There were no through-the-legs or slam dunks 20 to 30 years ago. Those things are the norm now.

When did you come up with your unique goal-kicking stance?
It happened a few years ago during kicking practice with the Wallabies. My kick used to have a huge curve to it, which affected my accuracy at times. So [Wallabies coach] Robbie Deans suggested I hold my arm back. I tried it and the ball went a lot straighter, which helped. The guys made fun of it and called it ‘the superstar’ and ‘the matador’, but it works for me. I’d feel strange if I had to put my arms down.

How has Braam van Straaten helped you with your goal kicking?
Braam watched some of the video footage of me kicking and knew straight away what was wrong. He told me I was opening up too early and pulling my foot too far back before the follow-through. So he worked on my technique and various other things. Soon I was nailing them from 50m out. I couldn’t believe it. Braam’s the most passionate goal-kicking coach I’ve met and it was great working with him.

What do you make of the criticism of your defence?
I’ve been happy with my defence this season. People have made a fuss about it and everyone is entitled to their opinion but I don’t let that kind of pressure get  to me. I focus on what I do well and on improving my all-round game.

What has sparked the Reds’ turnaround in Super Rugby?
The players and their improved attitude and the change in the coaching staff. We still have most of the guys who were always in the squad. The older players have just moved on, and the youngsters got older. The squad is training harder and smarter and the extra match experience has also helped. [Coach] Ewen McKenzie has had a major influence on the team. Our defence coach Matt Taylor has also played a big role. In the past, we used to score three tries in a game but we’d still lose as the opposition would put five or more past us. That’s no longer the case.

What are the differences between McKenzie and his predecessors?
Eddie Jones is a good coach and I respect him, but he’d just come from the national team and was working with a young Reds squad. He still had the approach that would’ve worked for a senior bunch of players, whereas the young guys needed more advice and their confidence to be built. Phil Mooney was a good young coach but the balance between the technical team and the players was out. Ewen fitted in perfectly. He has a lot of Super Rugby and international experience and has built a good relationship with the players. He always has new and innovative ideas and I respect that.

How has your partnership with Will Genia helped the team?
Will and I go back a long way. We joined the squad at a similar time and age, and have developed a good halfback combination. He’s one of the best scrumhalves to play with as he has an accurate pass and his sniping threat draws in defenders, which gives me more time and space with the ball. He’s a quiet guy off the field, but we get on well and that’s important. We’ve both gained a lot of experience and use it to help the newer guys. We’re still in our early 20s, so we connect better with them than a 35-year-old would.

Are you concerned about the competition for the Wallabies No 10 jersey?
We have some decent options there. James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale are two of my best mates and they’re doing well for the Force and Waratahs respectively. Barnsey and Matt Giteau are the more experienced flyhalves and are very talented. Competition is always good for the team. I just want to work hard this year and hope to impress the selectors ahead of the World Cup.

Who’s the toughest flyhalf you’ve faced?
André Pretorius. In my first run-on match, we played the Lions in Brisbane and we were ahead in the second half. But André came off the bench and changed the game. He pinned us deep in our half with accurate kicks, using his left and right boot. I found it difficult to get out of that situation and the Lions went on to win the match. There’s also Dan Carter. He’s been the top flyhalf for a long time and it’s good to measure yourself against the best.

Which flyhalves do you think should be in the final Springbok World Cup squad?
Morné Steyn and Peter Grant. Morné is consistent, has a great boot and is developing an impressive running game. He’s fitted into the Boks’ game plan perfectly. Peter is an amazing player. He attacks well, kicks with both feet and defends like a loose forward.

Are you surprised that Grant isn’t a regular in the Springbok squad?
Yes, I am. But looking at the Boks’ success in the past two seasons, the selectors must be doing something right. I still believe Peter should be playing for them, though. He’s a quality flyhalf.

Does Butch James still have a role to play?
It all depends on his fitness. I know he’s had a bad run with injuries recently, but a fully fit Butch James will benefit South African rugby, especially with his experience. I’ve played against him a couple of times and players do worry about his physicality. I still remember the look in his eye of always wanting to bash someone. He’s built like a strong centre but has the brains and skills of a flyhalf.

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
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