Cooper v Carter. Already the contest between flyhalves which will illuminate Saturday’s Super Rugby final between the Queensland Reds and Canterbury Crusaders, and maybe decide it, has the ring of one of sport’s great head-to-heads.
The competition between the Crusaders’ Daniel Carter and the Reds’ Quade Cooper has all of the qualities which cause an individual contest within a team sport to loom out of the compelling background of the match itself.
Saturday’s final in Brisbane, Australia, pits the two most exciting and constructive flyhalves in world rugby against each other and may decide, in a foretaste of this year’s World Cup, which may be called the best No 10 in the sport.
In one corner there is Cooper, the hometown hero, poised and confident yet still only 23. He is shaven-headed and liberally tattooed, muscled yet youthfully lean, possessed of the most singular goalkicking style in world rugby. Cooper is brash, unorthodox, inventive and unafraid.
He is New Zealand-born — raised in Tokoroa, a logging town about 150km south of Auckland — but moved with his family to Brisbane at age 14. His family roots in New Zealand are still deep, though. So deep that Sean Maitland, the Crusaders’ winger, is his first cousin.
Cooper has played only 24 tests, scored only 41 points in international rugby and yet already he is universally acclaimed as one of the best playmakers in rugby, one who has the ability to decide this year’s World Cup.
Saturday’s meeting is his second with Carter in Brisbane this season — he decided the first with a last-minute penalty which gave the Reds a 17-16 win over the Crusaders in the tournament’s 15th round. It could be the second of five meetings between the pair this season if they are to meet again, ultimately, in the World Cup final.
Carter is the established master. Now 29, he has played 93 tests and scored 1 188 test points; more than any player other than England’s Jonny Wilkinson (1 195).
Clean cut, athletic and assured in all of the fundamentals of the flyhalf’s game, Carter brings additional qualities of skill, anticipation, opportunism and tactical insight which have made him the world’s benchmark at least for the last five years.
He has the edge on Cooper in experience, in his proven track record and his participation in five previous Super Rugby finals, but Cooper’s season with the Reds has elevated his reputation.
Cooper may do more than Carter that is unpredictable, even unaccountable; he has the ability to operate in the most limited space, to make breaks in the midst of defenders. He does it all with apparent ease.
Carter will do all that he needs to do exceptionally well, even flawlessly. He will find his touches, manage territory, make his tackles, create gaps for his outside players. He has the No 10’s very best quality, that he can be counted on.
It is Carter’s resume more than his form this season which make him stand out as the current world No 1, although this has been a quiet season. Auckland Blues coach Pat Lam, after his team’s semifinal exit at the hands of the Reds, sought to rank the pair.
“Quade is right up there,” he said. “There is Dan, then him.”
Even Carter has remarked on Cooper’s developed this season with the Reds.
“Quade has just grown from the way he played last year,” Carter said. “He is really leading them and creating a lot of opportunities … He really is the danger man.”
Cooper almost single-handidly contrived the Reds’ 30-13 win over the Blues, though others such as winger Rod Davies — who scored three tries — benefited from his creativity.
All the elements of his game were present in the stunning try he set up for centre Ben Tapuai. Receiving the ball from a kick 35metres from his own goalline, he fended off Auckland winger Lachie Munro and, working with only a meter to the touchline, hared upfield. He beat another Auckland tackler near the sideline then turned sharply infield, dummied beyond the grasp of another defender and handed off to Tapuai.
He explained later: “I see an opportunity and I’ve just got to take them.
“There were a few other options, a few safe options some might say. I’m sure that’s what everyone else was thinking but that’s what the defense was thinking as well.”
Blues coach Lam was both stunned and admiring.
“You appreciate skill,” he said. “You appreciate good players whether they’re Australian or English or wherever they come from. You’ve got to try to defend him as a team. One-on-one he’ll beat just about every player around.”
Carter has been less influential this season: steady but seldom spectacular. It seems to have become the nature of Carter’s game that he saves his best for the big occasion.
He has run more rarely this season than he typically does but that might also be encouraged by the fact that he has outside him Sonny Bill Williams and one of the best backlines in the Super Rugby.
“He’s probably been a little bit quiet in recent times,” Crusaders assistant coach and former All Blacks midfielder Daryl Gibson said.
“He’s one of those players, because he does everything so well, you sometimes don’t notice just how good he is.
“You look at a number of other [flyhalves] playing with a lot more flair, but they also make a lot more mistakes. He does a fantastic job of making sure we stick to the game plan and go out and execute everything we need to do.”
And he’s coming into form, contributing 19 points in a nearly perfect kicking performance in the Crusaders 29-10 semifinal win over the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend.
“Everyone would be disappointed if we didn’t go all the way,” Carter said. “Not a lot has to be said.” — Sapa-AP