Redemption - a tale of two players
Two players, two different teams. Each desperately searching for redemption in the eyes of their fans.
But with Saturday night’s Castle Lager Rugby Championship fixture evenly balanced, even if they end up on the winning side, will Quade Cooper or Zane Kirchner succeed in fulfilling their goals?
The duo have been at the centre of selection talk all week long, with their respective coaches going to great lengths to talk up their strengths, underline their value to the team and to remind their public critics that they are more than the sum of their parts.
You couldn’t find two players who are more different on the rugby spectrum than these two, but there are startling similarities ahead of Saturday’s game in the way they have been savaged in the court of public opinion.
Both desperately want to prove their critics wrong.
And yet both will be shafted firmly into the limelight this Saturday, scrutinised in their every move and analysed for every little thing that they either will or won’t do.
In Cooper’s situation, much of it is self inflicted – his “toxic” comments coming at precisely the wrong time last year and causing a major rift not only with then coach Robbie Deans but with several of his teammates as well.
His much-publicised wrongdoings – often in the company of his "Generation Y" mates James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane, have won him a bad-boy image, and made him the poster boy for the boo-boys across the Tasman sea in the country where he was born.
But it isn’t surprising that the Cooper who coach Ewen McKenzie is looking for, is the Cooper who mesmerises opposition, who makes the players around him look sublime as he finds holes in defences to put them through.
The rugby-genius Cooper is rarely seen these days, but has such an impact when it appears that McKenzie is willing to take the risk that the brash, bumbling Cooper doesn’t appear.
“There is no doubt the more times Quade touches the ball the better he is,” McKenzie waxed lyrical at the announcement.
“I’m certainly not going to use him as a decoy runner. We think they will kick a lot, and if he gets his hands on the ball, that’s good. Maybe they won’t kick as much, we’ll see.”
Cooper last played at 10 for the Wallabies against Argentina on the Gold Coast last year, a game he’d rather forget as a charged-down kick cost a try and the Wallabies just squeaked home. He never played under Robbie Deans again.
But now with McKenzie his mentor and coach at the Reds, he is very keen to make the gamble pay off.
“It has been a long journey but it shows that hard work pays off and I have to continue to work hard,” Cooper said.
“I’ve been in and around the team for some weeks now, and I’ve been given the role as starting number 10, but the hard work continues.”
And Cooper wasn’t about to make wild statements about the Boks to give them more motivation, underlining the fact that his impressive record of seven wins in nine games against the Boks means little.
“It’s a stat thrown around a lot this week,” he replied, “But the only stat that matters is that the Boks are number 2 in the world.
"We know the Boks are in red-hot form, they’ve scored almost 100 points in their last two games. But Suncorp is good to us and we need to make that count.”
MORE FOCUSED, MORE MATURE
Cooper claims to be a lot more focused and mature this time around, and spoke openly about the heckling.
"You can’t let it get you down or get to you," Cooper said of his treatment by New Zealand fans. "I look back a few years and maybe I let it get to me at the (2011) World Cup. It was an interesting learning curve.
"I’ve matured since then. You know it (the heckling) is going to be there when you run out or catch or pass the ball. I just don’t let it surprise me."
The contrast therefore to Kirchner couldn’t be a bigger one, with the South African having none of the same disciplinary or heckling issues from opposition crowds.
And that’s not all. Looking at the quiet, soft-spoken demeanour of Kirchner, it is hard not to feel for him with the flack he gets.
Solid under the high ball, with an excellent tactical boot on him and with the stats to back it up, Kirchner kicks less than Israel Dagg and gets double the flack.
It is no wonder that his coach Heyneke Meyer said he felt he gets a raw deal from the public.
“There is a perception of Zane that he is only a kicking fullback,” Meyer said. “But if you look at all the teams he’s played in, even in Super Rugby, they are teams who score tries.
"I think last year we scored 22 tries compared to 13 by the Wallabies and Zane was our fullback. If you look at his Super Rugby stats, he’s always up there with the players who scored the most tries.
“He’s a clinical fullback. He can attack if there is an opportunity and he is also a very good defender who is great under the high ball.
“Sometimes people try to read too much into it. The one week we scored nine tries against Argentina and the next week, with the same backline, we scored one. It’s not always straightforward. People, for example, said we would score a lot of tries if Pat Lambie played fullback and we didn’t.
“I think Zane is a quality player who doesn’t get enough credit. He has always done well for us.”
Meyer is right about one thing – Kirchner scores more tries than people give him credit for. He was second in 2012 behind Bjorn Basson in the Bulls' try-scoring stakes in Super Rugby.
Kirchner scored against Australia in 2012 as well, and would love to add to his three tries in a Bok jersey thus far.
But while he prepares, he needs to keep on fighting off the barbs from the Boks' own fans.
“Everyone seems to have a perception that I kick too much,” he says, “but that’s simply not true. The stats show it, and we play what is in front of us.”
Kirchner does admit he sees this as a second chance, a chance to “breathe fresh air” into his career.
And like Cooper, he continues to search for rugby redemption.
Yet in the end both players may well have to realise that no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to satisfy everyone.
Still the search adds an interesting twist to Saturday’s contest, and while one of the two will come out on the winning side, it will only be another step forward.
And not the answer either wants in their careers.