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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Beale v Cooper: the beat goes on

The rival five-eighths go way back, to a time when the Queenslander was making sweet music on and off the field, writes Jamie Pandaram.
SEVEN years ago Quade Cooper drew as much attention for the tricks he could do with his mouth as those he does with his hands and legs today. It was what Kurtley Beale first noticed about the skinny boy with the funny hair who would later become one of his best friends.
''I first met him at the under-16 championships in 2004; I played for NSW Schools and he was playing for Queensland Schools,'' Beale recalls. ''I didn't know many of the Queensland boys then; it was my first time playing rep rugby union.
''Back then he had curly hair down to his shoulders. I just remember he was a really good beatboxer. Back then that was the thing that was going around, and he was really good at it.''
Cooper's talent in producing an acapella rhythm caught Beale's ear, but it was that outlandish sidestep catching his full attention at the championships the following year.
''He wasn't starting; Ben Lucas was in front of him,'' Beale says. ''We played them in the final and he came off the bench and with his first touch got the inside shoulder on me, that's how I found out how good he was.
''He had the Benji Marshall step back then. He was the first guy in our age group to bring it out and show it off - and it worked on me.''
Their friendship developed quickly during a tour of Britain in 2005 with the Australian Schoolboys squad.
''We became pretty close, good friends, obviously being the same position we helped each others' games out,'' Beale says.
''I was trying to learn the step, but all I could invent was the emu goose-step, that was my trait and he had the Benji Marshall step. He called my little goose-step the emu, that kind of stuck.''
The two young Wallabies wear the No.10 jerseys for their respective states in the biggest game of the Super Rugby season between two Australian teams on Saturday night, and their attitude has evolved with the occasion.
''Over the years we have started to focus on the job ahead, not really having a little laugh jogging back from the lineout, having a nudge or wink,'' Beale says. ''Now we know what we have to do; there is no time for joking when you're out there in the heat of the battle.''
Yet it is difficult to tell whether this is not just fun and games for Cooper, who continually defies the purist logic by throwing no-look passes or kicking to teammates from inside his own in-goal.
''To me, it is not anything outrageous,'' Cooper says. ''I just enjoy playing the game, and those are things you do when you were a kid, and you are just having fun. If there is a guy unmarked, then why not just give him the ball? Whether you kick it there or throw it there, it is still about giving him the ball.
''You enjoy those things as a kid, playing backyard footy, and this is just on a bigger stage in front of a few more people than in the backyard, I guess.''
But pity the man who has to play outside him. Mike Harris has now formed a comfortable partnership with Cooper in Queensland's midfield, but hardly downplays the task of shadowing him.
''You've got to be watching him all the time, be on your toes the whole time out there, because otherwise you can get left behind,'' Harris says. ''It is exciting. He can do some pretty crazy stuff and most of the time it is spectacular and brilliant.''
Beale clears up misconceptions about Cooper.
''I got caught up going down the wrong track, and I think he went towards a similar path, and looking over the last year or so I think he has started to grow up, he has matured into a really good bloke,'' Beale says.
''You can see there is a lot of confidence in him, and standing up for what he believes in. Now he does have a noticed voice in the Wallabies, which is a key for his position. It is easier for him to play footy.
''Hanging around him at training, you can also see his knowledge of the game has improved dramatically. He knows his stuff, he does a lot of homework on the opposition and the little extras to be able to get on top. Probably a lot of people see him as 'the risky player', the show-off, the unorthodox kind of style, but I tell you what, and you can see over the last couple of games, he has matured into one of those directors of the game. He can slow the game down, play to another tempo and play for the team.
''He knows what the team wants in certain situations. If they want to amp it up he will start to deliver there, and if he sees his forwards needing a rest he'll put it into touch. He's very smart like that now, you can see that maturity.
''The last couple of years people have doubted him but now they'll say he's probably developed into a really good world-class player.''
Variation of tempo has been a much-vaunted addition to Cooper's arsenal, and will be a valuable commodity for the Wallabies in a World Cup year where the big games tend to favour simplicity over flash.
''You've just got to keep evolving with the game and the times,'' Cooper says. ''Last year, the game was a little bit different - there was a lot less kicking.
''If you go back a few years, everyone was just kicking the ball. Now there is a pretty good balance between kicking and running.
''If you get wound up with just one style of play, you are just going to miss the evolution of the game. As a team, we are doing well, following the evolution.''
Similar to his friendship with Beale, who says: ''I'm sure no matter where it is on the field, even if we're at the end of our careers, we're separated and don't see each other that often, I'm sure when we do we can always talk about some good memories.''

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