Quade Cooper will captain Queensland Reds as they face the British & Irish Lions in what may be his final chance to impress enough to make the Australian team that will take on the Lions at tour's end.
British & Irish Lions: Quade Cooper's final chance to shine
Brisbane // The British & Irish Lions could quash Quade Cooper's final hope of facing them in a Test series when he was expected to have played an integral role for Australia.
The gifted fly-half will captain the Queensland Reds against Sam Warburton's tourists on Saturday, knowing it his last chance to leave any kind of impression on the Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.
Cooper is, surprisingly, not part of Australia's preliminary squad for a three-game series that begins back in Brisbane on June 22.
James O'Connor appears to have nailed down the No 10 shirt over Cooper.
But a commanding performance from Cooper in front of a sell-out 52,000 Suncorp Stadium crowd could potentially give Deans some food for thought.
"Quade Cooper has a point to prove," said Rob Howley, the Lions assistant coach. "He is a hugely talented player who will be looking to have the ball in his hands as much as possible. It is going to be a tough test. We are delighted they have picked the strongest side they could have done. While we stepped up a lot against the [Western] Force on Wednesday, we are under no underestimations about the level we need to hit against the Reds, and that's good. It is what we need.
"The quality of the opposition is going to be a test for our defence. Quade Cooper is a hugely talented player. He's a player who can do anything. They obviously want him to have the ball in his hands as much as possible. He will create opportunities for the Reds, there is no doubt about that. We've concentrated on our defence because it's going to be key keeping not only Quade Cooper quiet, but a lot of other players in that Reds team as well."
Reflecting on his choice of Cooper as the Queensland captain, the Reds director of coaching Ewen McKenzie said: "Quade is a proven winner. The reality is that we win more games with him in the side. But what most people don't know or see is the responsibility and ownership he takes on with regards to our game plan. Right now, with seven current Wallabies unavailable, he is also our most experienced international player."
Cooper added: "The history and tradition that surrounds the Lions obviously speaks for itself, so it will be quite humbling to lead Queensland out.
"It's a proud moment any time you get to lead a side, but the fact that I've been at the Reds since I was 15 years old just adds to the occasion on a personal level."
The Reds, though, face a huge task in attempting to stop a Lions squad that is building ominously towards the Test series and has already scored 128 points in two games. Only the centre Manu Tuilagi and the wing Tommy Bowe remain on starting duty from the Force fixture, as Lions coach Warren Gatland carries out his pledge to give all squad members a start in the first three games.
The only player to have so far missed out from the original travelling party is the full-back Rob Kearney, who is recovering from a hamstring injury and could be in the selection mix to face New South Wales Waratahs next weekend. The Lions will be led for the first time by the tour captain Warburton.
"It's a big day for Sam," Howley said. "Obviously, his family will be very proud and Wales will be very proud to have a Welshman leading the Lions. I spoke to Sam today, and I think he is really looking forward to it. There is a competitive edge, unity and cohesion which Sam creates. He is certainly going to lead by actions."
INJURY ENDS CIAN HEALY'S TOUR
Cian Healy has been forced to pull out of the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia due to an ankle injury.
The Irishman suffered the problem during Wednesday's tour match against Western Force in Perth, with scans revealing ligament damage around the left ankle.
The Lions said the expected recovery time would exceed the duration of the tour.
The news came hours after Healy was cleared of biting Brett Sheehan during the Force game.
The Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins has also been ruled out of today's match against the Queensland Reds due to a calf injury, with Scotland's Ryan Grant called into the squad as cover.
Mako Vunipola will replace Jenkins in the Lions' line-up against the Reds.
On Healy's injury, coach Warren Gatland said: "Firstly, our thoughts are with Cian. It has been a day of mixed emotions for him after being quite rightly being cleared of foul play but then the scan revealing the extent of the damage to his ankle. He has made a big contribution on and off the field in the last two weeks and we wish him well in his recovery."
Grant has been called up from Scotland's tour of South Africa, while the promotion of Saracens loosehead prop Vunipola to the starting line-up in place of Jenkins means England's Dan Cole moves onto the replacements bench.
Gatland added: "Gethin has trained all week but he felt some tightness in his calf today so it's right not to play him. We will assess him over the next 24 to 48 hours but Mako has done well in the last two games and this is another chance for him to step up.
Gatland said Grant has played well in the Pro12 competition this season, as well as for Scotland in the Six Nations.
"We look forward to him and Alex Corbisiero arriving," Gatland said
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