Quade Cooper out to impress mentor Ewen McKenzie
Mercurial fly half, banished from Australia squad by Robbie Deans, hopes arrival of club coach and mentor will offer shot at redemption
Fly half Quade Cooper might be the apple of Ewen McKenzie's eye, but he is still feeling the pressure to perform in front of the new Australia coach as the Queensland Reds prepare for the Super Rugby play-offs.
The demise of former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, who controversially overlooked Cooper for the British and Irish Lions series, has opened the door for the mercurial 25-year-old to take back the fly half position ahead of the opening match of the Rugby Championship against New Zealand next month.
In his third season at the Brisbane-based club, Reds coach McKenzie has made no secret of his admiration for Cooper's high-stakes style, but the 38-test prodigy remains wary of slipping up under his mentor's nose.
"Now having Ewen there it's all about continuing to work hard and not dropping your bundle because this is where the real test starts," Cooper said.
"I've just got to continue to work hard and do the right thing on and off the field.
"Thinking about being part of the Wallabies again and facing the All Blacks, if I do that, then I'm losing sight of what's in front of me and I'm not doing my teammates or my club justice."
Cooper will line up against the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs today in the final round of the regular season, as the Reds jostle for a home play-off to start their third successive postseason campaign next week.
Having suffered a serious knee injury at the end of the 2011 World Cup, which he re-injured last year, Cooper's return to top form for the Reds this season had most rugby pundits Down Under believing him a shoo-in to play against the Lions.
His omission from the 31-man squad was largely considered a travesty, and attributed to the scathing public attack Cooper launched at Deans' game-plan and coaching style last year.
Deans' preferred fly half James O'Connor struggled in the pivotal position against the Lions and breached team discipline during the series. He appears to have fallen out of favour.
That leaves Cooper competing with the highly-fancied, but uncapped ACT Brumbies fly half Matt Toomua or wayward talent Kurtley Beale, who is still undertaking an off-field programme to deal with alcohol-related problems.
In contrast to his "Three Amigos" comrades O'Connor and Beale, Cooper has kept his nose clean this season, which should favour him as the Australian Rugby Union reviews team protocols after several embarrassing incidents during the Lions series.
McKenzie stopped short of backing Cooper for his first Wallabies side, but rated him one of the country's "top players".
"He's certainly the guy I know the best and he's done nothing wrong by me in terms of how he plays the game," McKenzie said.
"I think he ticks the boxes in terms of skill and vision, and ability to call a game.
"He wasn't involved in the last series, so he's freshened up. We'll see, but there are other guys I'm interested in as well."
While the Australian public would salivate at the prospect of their adopted New Zealander facing his former countrymen in Sydney on August 17, the All Blacks present the ultimate mental test for Cooper.
The Tokoroa-raised playmaker played poorly against the eventual champions in the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup and was ineffective in his sole match against them last year while still recovering from his knee injury.
Playing his first test match in 10 months, Cooper struggled in the cauldron-like atmosphere at Eden Park where the Wallabies crashed to a 22-0 defeat and lost any hope of reclaiming the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup for the first time in 10 years.
Weeks later, he was ruled out of the rest of the Wallabies' season after knee trouble.
A return to the Wallabies would mark a third opportunity for Cooper, whose drama-filled career has both enthralled and frustrated fans since his 2008 debut against Italy.
"I had made mistakes and I got chances," the 25-year-old Cooper said.
"But when you do get your second chance, or you're lucky enough to get a third chance, you've got to make sure you do all that you can to show the respect for those people that showed faith in you."