Cooper, Carlos and Carter - parallels between sleight and steady hands

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James Mortimer     22 May 2013     Getty Images

Carter, winner of every title the game has to offer (as a NZ player and All Black...) and current and two-time IRB Player of the Year, leads histories point scoring ledgers in both Test and Super Rugby, and this year, injury permitting, will become the fourth All Black to register 100 Test appearances.

But it wasn’t his accolades, which contrast with Cooper’s one Tri Nations and One Super Rugby title, that raised questions about the debate, but rather how a more consummate number ten with rounded skills could be compared to a flamboyant risk taker like Quade, who at his peak might run rings around Carter, but at the same time would no doubt come second to the All Blacks kingpin in numerous other areas such as kicking.

Carter, a player who resembles Andrew Mehrtens in some aspects, certainly does not resemble another former All Black number ten, in Carlos Spencer.

Spencer is the closest thing New Zealand and All Blacks rugby, in terms of on-field ability, has had to a Cooper.

I cannot think of many who do not to this day remain a fan of the mercurial skills King Carlos brought to the table, in a decorated career where he did represent the All Blacks for 35 Tests, precisely half the number Mehrtens registered in approximately the same time frame.

It wasn’t that the All Blacks coaches weren’t fans of Spencer, but wary of that tiny window that only Test rugby can produce, that tiny split second where a wrong decision can lose a game, but more to the point, a right decision will only win a moment.

Carter is not a player who makes one right decision in a match, but a series of instantaneous assessments that more often than not work in his favour, as he strives to look at the big picture, and knows that a sequence of correct decisions in a game will always beat a moment of brilliance.

Cooper can bring that moment of magic to the park, but grabbing a moment by the scuff of the neck is vastly different that taking a game, something that was like a portent mentioned after Berrick Barnes came off the bench to essentially manage proceedings to his team’s favour when the Waratahs downed the Brumbies.

Another fact that was talked about was Carter’s defensive effort against an attack laden Blues outfit, and while Ewen McKenzie will faithfully defend his decision to shift Cooper to the rear guard on attack, how could a coach not worry about a potential liability on the tackle when the British and Irish Lions are sending arguably the most physically impressive squad ever assembled.

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans recently mentioned that he thought Cooper wasn’t allowing players outside of him to thrive, and while some might take it unfairly as a swipe, one comment that has stood out was when the talented Reds flyhalf took the field after returning from injury, and it was often said “the defence doesn’t know what he is going to do, but neither do his own players!”

A sentence that could apply to Cooper or Spencer, but Carter, now a renowned communicator on the field and All Blacks vice-captain, is a player whose efforts more often than not benefit those outside of him, with the great example here being how Ma’a Nonu thrives playing off Carter’s shoulder.

It is a tricky dilemma for the Wallabies who will need the right game against a Lions side that some may consider man for man superior, and they (and fans with longer memories) will be conscious that they shifted from a flamboyant approach pre-2011 Rugby World Cup to a pragmatic style that drew some criticism.

Whatever game the Wallabies need to play against the Lions, Deans will need his number ten more than any other player to orchestrate his plans.

He may have been spoiled with this during his time with the Crusaders, but the current Wallaby mentor hasn't had the consistency he had at first five like he did with the red and blacks (or more to the point, with Mehrtens and Carter).

Again, the parallels occur, with Carter clearly a player operating to a plan (no doubt with a few of his own ideas based on vast experience), while King Carlos and Cooper would mix up their brilliance with moments that could only be described as a coach killer.

Everybody, from the fans to the coaches, loves a player who throws caution to the wind and can open a game up with a single play, but more often than not, such operators have not had the responsibility of navigating the team around the park – which is why Cooper thrives outside of Genia, who plays a significant game management role and takes pressure of Quade’s shoulders.

At the end of the day, Cooper’s sleight of hand comes from the fact that few wizards create their magic with still digits.

Such a hand isn’t always suited to holding the tiller steady, especially in the highest stakes theatre that is Test rugby.