Could the pairing of Super Rugby’s most enigmatic player with its most frustrating team be a match made in heaven?
The most notable name in Australian unemployment statistics this week, Quade Cooper, probably won’t have a hard time finding a new gig somewhere in the world. While it might be a stretch to think he’d return to the land of his birth, some analysis of a potential move to the Blues does actually hold some water – especially since there is no evidence that any other Australian franchise has plans to pick up Cooper for 2018.
Here’s why the Blues should sign him:
The Auckland-based Blues have a ton of talent on paper, including some of the most dangerous backs in the competition: Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai to name a few. But, to the frustration of their fans, they’ve consistently under-delivered in the New Zealand conference – having to watch every other New Zealand franchise win at least one title since 2010.
There is one common theme among the champions. They all had an international calibre first-fives – including the Crusaders’ Richie Mo’unga, who played his first game for the All Blacks on their recent European tour. Historically, the teams that win Super Rugby have had an international quality 10 at the helm, and this isn’t just the New Zealand championship teams.
The Blues right now are similar to the Hurricanes of the 2000’s – rock star backs without a top quality first five. Cooper has vast international experience with 70 test caps to his name, is one of the few 10’s to have beaten the All Blacks, already has a Super Rugby title and, maybe most importantly, has a New Zealand passport.
The Blues troubles at 10
The Blues region has been infamously unable to produce a first five since the beginning of Super Rugby. From their first, and best ever, Carlos Spencer (who hails from Levin) to their pivot from last year, Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay).
Their latest two prospects – Stephen Perofeta and Otere Black, hail from Wanganui and Manawatu – in the Hurricanes region. These two players have come through the New Zealand under 20’s and present exciting prospects, but are unproven in Super Rugby. In pure bad news Blues fashion, Black is out for the entire Super Rugby season anyway with a knee injury picked up in the Mitre 10 Cup.
The Blues have shown before they will gamble – the ill-fated signing of league convert Benji Marshall in 2014 was a high-risk high-reward signing that did not pay off. On the face of it, Cooper is a much better proposition – for a start, he plays the right code.
Moving to the Blues would give Cooper’s Super Rugby career an immediate reboot. The problems at the Reds run far deeper than Cooper himself – a fresh location, new teammates and less onus on Cooper would give him the best chance to return to his stellar 2011 form.
The current situation will be hurting Cooper’s ego. Never before has he been unwanted like this, he left the Reds on his terms and they bent over to bring him back. This works in the Blues favour, a bruised ego will hopefully bring back the best side of him and motivate change.
He arguably has never had the sort of weapons such as Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams to work with before. Williams is renowned for his professionalism and work ethic – and more importantly already harbours a close relationship with Cooper. Any concerns about a negative impact of bringing Cooper in should be dampened by this fact, the two would likely work well together.
If Cooper can re-capture the 2011 magic, it would be the second coming of Carlos. They are similar players who shared criticism for their creative style of play and attitude. Playing in Auckland worked for Spencer, it could work again for the closest thing we have seen to Spencer.
Then there’s the added factor of ‘redemption’ for the Tokoroa-born Cooper. He’s long been unfairly bagged as a traitor by New Zealanders, however he did himself no favours during his test career by trying to tussle with Richie McCaw in their Bledisloe Cup encounters. A successful return to an NZ team would greatly improve his legacy in these parts, in fact all it can take is one successful kick – just ask Stephen Donald.
The biggest hurdle for Cooper
There is no denying that since 2011, the best of Cooper has been seen sparingly. At 29-years-old Cooper is, admittedly, approaching his twilight years.
Super Rugby is a young 10’s game – all of the pivots that have won Super Rugby are in their mid-20’s – Richie Mo’unga (23 in 2017), Beauden Barrett (25 in 2016), Lima Sopoaga (24 in 2015), Bernard Foley (25 in 2014), Aaron Cruden (23/24 in 2012/13), Cooper (23 in 2011), Morne Steyn (25/26 in 2009/10).
Dan Carter, who won three titles with the Crusaders, won his last at 26-years-old – despite playing Super Rugby until 33. The oldest first five to win a Super Rugby title is Stephen Larkham, who at 30 guided the 2004 Brumbies championship.
Cooper would have to buck the recent trend, but he has missed significant game time recently. 2015 was largely spent on the sidelines due to injury, and his time in France saw limited action.
However, it’s notable that Spencer was 28 at the time of his vintage 2003 championship season for the Blues – the last time they troubled the Super Rugby trophy engravers.
Roll of the dice
A key factor in this decision would be – does Cooper care about winning? Would he take a pay-cut to prove he can play at a high-level in the best professional club competition in the world? Or does he want to take the yen in Japan playing in a lower quality competition?
If the Blues could pick up Cooper on a cheap one-year deal – they could give him the opportunity to start the 2018 season. If the spark is there, they could make a run to the playoffs. If it isn’t, they hand the reigns over to Black or Perofeta and begin building their experience.
The Blues have nothing to lose – as the above history suggests, they aren’t going to be in the frame to win without a top-level first-five. Despite the outstanding promise shown, it will take a few seasons for 22-year-old Black or 20-year-old Perofeta to get to that level.
Like the Marshall deal, signing Cooper would attract a massive amount of scrutiny. But, unlike Marshall, this actually makes some sense. It could pay off handsomely – and if it doesn’t then the Blues haven’t lost much.
Because given the results they’ve had in recent years, there’s nothing left to lose anyway.