x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Super 15 rugby final: A game of two halves

Trans-Tasman rivalry between Canterbury Crusaders and Queensland Reds in the Brisbane showpiece will be encapsulated by a key battle at No 10, as Quade Cooper is out to claim Dan Carter¿s mantle.

Cooper versus Carter. Already the contest between the two fly-halves which will illuminate today's Super 15 rugby final between the Queensland Reds and the Canterbury Crusaders has the ring of one of sport's great head-to-heads.

The duel between the Crusaders' Daniel Carter and the Reds' Quade Cooper has all of the qualities which cause an individual contest within a team sport to loom out of the compelling backdrop of the match itself.

Today's final in Brisbane pits the two most exciting and constructive fly-halves in world rugby against each other and may decide, in a foretaste of this year's World Cup, which one may be called the best No 10 in the sport.

In one corner there is Cooper, the hometown hero, poised and confident yet still only 23. He is shaven-headed and tattooed, muscled yet youthfully lean. He is brash, unorthodox, inventive and unafraid.

He is New Zealand-born - raised in Tokoroa, a logging town about 150km south of Auckland - but moved with his family to Brisbane at 14. His family roots in New Zealand are still deep, though. So deep that Sean Maitland, the Crusaders' winger, is his first cousin.

Cooper has played only 24 Tests, scored only 41 points in international rugby and yet already he is acclaimed as one of the best playmakers in rugby, one with the ability to decide this year's World Cup.

Today's meeting is his second with Carter in Brisbane this season - he decided the first with a last-minute penalty which gave the Reds a 17-16 win.

Carter is the established master. Now 29, he has played 93 Tests and scored 1,188 points; more than any player other than England's Jonny Wilkinson (1,195).

Clean cut, athletic and assured in all of the fundamentals of the fly-half's game, Carter brings skill, anticipation, opportunism and a tactical insight which have made him the world's benchmark at least for the last five years.

He has the edge on Cooper in experience and has played in five previous Super rugby finals, but Cooper's season with the Reds has elevated his reputation. Cooper is more unpredictable than Carter. He has the ability to operate in the most limited space, to make breaks in the midst of defenders.

Carter will do all that he needs to do exceptionally well, even flawlessly. He will find his touches, manage territory, make his tackles, create gaps for his outside players. He has the No 10s best quality: he can be counted on.

It is Carter's record more than his form this season which make him stand out as the world No 1.

Pat Lam, the Auckland Blues coach, sought to rank the pair after his team's semi-final exit at the hands of the Reds.

"Quade is right up there," he said. "There is Dan, then him."

Even Carter has remarked on Cooper's developed this season.

"Quade has just grown from the way he played last year," Carter said. "He is really leading them and creating a lot of opportunities ... He really is the danger man."

Cooper almost single-handedly brought about the Reds' 30-13 win over the Blues, and others benefited from his creativity.

All the elements of his game were present in the stunning try he set up for Ben Tapuai. Receiving the ball from a kick 35 metres from his own goal-line, he fended off Lachie Munro, the Auckland winger, and, working with only a metre to the touchline, dashed upfield. He beat another tackler near the sideline then turned sharply infield, dummied another defender and handed off to Tapuai.

He said later: "I see an opportunity and I've just got to take them.

"There were a few other options, a few safe options some might say. I'm sure that's what everyone else was thinking but that's what the defence was thinking as well."

Lam was both stunned and admiring. "You appreciate skill," he said. "You appreciate good players whether they're Australian or English or wherever they come from. You've got to try to defend him as a team. One-on-one he'll beat just about every player around."

Carter has been less influential this season: steady but seldom spectacular. It seems to have become the nature of Carter's game that he saves his best for the big occasion.

"He's probably been a little bit quiet in recent times," said Daryl Gibson, the Crusaders assistant coach. "He's one of those players, because he does everything so well, you sometimes don't notice just how good he is."

And he's coming into form, contributing 19 points in a nearly perfect kicking performance in the Crusaders 29-10 semi-final win over the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend.

"Everyone would be disappointed if we didn't go all the way," Carter said. "Not a lot has to be said."