Every great success story has a hero and a villain, and there’s no question that New Zealand-born playmaker Quade Cooper filled the latter role superbly as the All Blacks chased a World Cup victory in 2011.
24 years prior, New Zealand had hosted and triumphed in the inaugural World Cup, taking out the final against France, but they’d fallen short of the mark in every tournament following.
Come 2011, rugby’s flagship competition was once again being held on New Zealand soil and the nation was cautiously optimistic that finally – finally – the William Webb Ellis Cup would find its way back into the NZ trophy cabinet.
Before the tournament could even commence and the All Blacks could try do what they’d failed to accomplish for over two decades, they had to overcome the Wallabies in a two-match Bledisloe Cup series – and what a series it turned into.
2011 was the last year the Tri-Nations took place before Argentina joined the competition to create the Rugby Championship and saw Australia, New Zealand and South Africa face-off on a home and away basis.
In NZ’s first game against Australia, home advantage helped the All Blacks to a comfortable 30-14 win with the men in black recording 20 points before the Wallabies were even able to make it onto the scoreboard.
Three weeks later, it was time for the second match – this time played in Brisbane. The winner of the game was inevitably going to be crowned Tri-Nations champion but, more importantly, would enter the World Cup in a month’s time with an extra boost of confidence.
Anticipation was high – New Zealand had been expected to deal to the Tri-Nations then march straight onto the World Cup so the fact that the Wallabies had mounted a challenge at all had fans excited on both sides of the Tasman Sea.
The All Blacks were coming off an away-loss to the Springboks and they hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 2009 which added an extra little bit of spice to the occasion.
New Zealand made five changes to their starting XV from the team that had bested Australia in Auckland, substituting Cory Jane, Zac Guildford, Adam Thompson, Sam Whitelock and Tony Woodcock in for Sitiveni Sivivatu, Hosea Gear, Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams and Wyatt Crockett.
Australia, meanwhile, had made four changes of their own, bringing in Anthony Fainga’a, Radike Samu and Dan Vickerman for James O’Connor, Ben McCalman and Rob Simmons.
Samu’s inclusion, in particular, piqued interest. At 35-years-old, the lock-cum-loose-forward was set to become the oldest ever Wallaby to play in a Tri-Nations match.
The Wallabies took the early lead in the game through a try to halfback Will Genia, playing in front of his home crowd.
Minutes later, Samu breached the All Blacks line and cantered down the middle of the park but was eventually brought down by the chasing defenders – but it was a warning to the Kiwis for things to come because 20 minutes later he did the exact same thing but had enough space to run away for an incredible try.
Palming off Thompson after David Pocock reclaimed a high ball, Samu ran 50 metres for a score that was later awarded the International Rugby Players Association Try of the Year.
In a complete reversal of the prior match between the two rivals, it took until the 52nd minute for New Zealand to record their first try. Conrad Smith dotted down after a silky offload from Dan Carter then turned creator minutes later, setting up his midfield partner Ma’a Nonu for a try of his own.
Before Nonu’s try, however, Quade Cooper made a mistake he would rue for the remainder of his international career – a mistake which would see his confidence severely impacted at the World Cup.
In the 54th minute of the game, Cooper slyly dug his knee into the head of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw – an action that forever poisoned the playmaker in the eyes of the New Zealand public.
Cooper was later cited for the knee but nothing came of it – except incessant, endless booing from NZ crowds whenever Cooper came to town.
Still, there was a game to play and the match quickly resumed.
Nonu’s score tied the contest up 20-all with 20 minutes left to play before the Wallabies retaliated – with Genia the catalyst, breaking the line at halfway.
It was reminiscent of the 2011 Super Rugby final, played almost a month earlier at the same grounds. Genia set up the Reds’ final try of that game to break hearts of the Crusaders fans everywhere and he was again causing problems for NZ rugby fans.
Genia stepped around the ruck, dashed toward the goal posts then set up Digby Ioane who passed on to Kurtley Beale for the touchdown.
There was still plenty of time for the All Blacks to mount a fightback but the Wallabies’ defence held firm, shutting the New Zealand attack down and claiming a well-deserved 25-20 victory.
It was a momentous occasion for the Wallabies and could have paved the way for a successful run at the World Cup – but they came unstuck in the semi-finals of the competition when they were again tasked with playing the All Blacks.
Itching for revenge, New Zealand won the game 20-6 and went on to claim their World Cup title a week later.
Boos ran out across the ground whenever Cooper touched the ball – even in the matches leading up to the finals – and the man who helped dismantle the All Blacks just a couple of months later looked completely rattled.
The 2011 Bledisloe victory for the Wallabies should have paved the way for future successes but it may well have simply hardened the Kiwis’ resolve and unleashed a crowd of braying, bloodthirsty fans on a man who grew up in the small town of Tokoroa but found his countrymen turning against him.
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