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Wallabies can be world No.1: Quade Cooper
December 2, 2013
Greg Growden reviews the Wallabies' end-of-year tour of Europe

Quade Cooper couldn't have finished 2013 further removed from where he ended 2012. Persona non grata in Wallabies ranks 12 months ago, after describing the team environment as "toxic", Cooper capped his transformation with a man-of-the-match display in orchestrating victory over Wales at Millennium Stadium. The playmaker was at his bewildering best in a drama-filled 75-minute effort that showcased all his skills as Australia finished their European tour with a 30-26 victory.

Cooper has spent the bulk of his Wallabies' career swinging from entertaining hero to pantomime villain, and his 50th Test encapsulated both as he finished the classic encounter in the sin-bin. He produced his fair share of attacking magic, including a wonderful flick pass to set up a try, but the early tackle ruling by referee Wayne Barnes against the five-eighth led to a yellow card that left Australia hanging on for dear life with only 14 men for the last five minutes of the match.

Cooper was captain on the field at the time, in the absence of Ben Mowen, who had been substituted, but the controversial call meant the Wallabies had to produce what Israel Folau described as their "gutsiest effort of the year" to repel waves of Welsh attack. Only desperate defence and a 100% goal-kicking return by Christian Leali'ifano, who scored 20 points, ensured Australia's spectacular attacking game claimed the victory it deserved.

"I was sitting on the sideline so filthy with myself, I didn't want to let the team down," Cooper said. "But it's a sign of a good team when ... everything is going against us, everybody pulled together and lifted a little bit more."

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The gripping three-tries-to-two win gave Australia their first four-match streak in five years and ensured Ewen McKenzie finished his first season in charge with a break-even 6-6 record. It also gives the Wallabies a firm foundation to build on ahead of Rugby World Cup 2015, and makes the deflation of the mid-year series loss to the British & Irish Lions a more distant memory.

Cooper said he "loved every minute" of the end-of-season tour that could have resulted in a grand slam triumph if not for a second-half meltdown in the 20-13 loss to England. "I'm fortunate to have finished the year off like this, it's something I've always worked towards," he said. "From where I was at a year ago it wouldn't have been possible to think where I would be today, but it proves that hard work and dedication, and sticking with something you love and giving it back to your team mates ... can lead to things."

The Wallabies' fortunes have mirrored Cooper's this year, as they fell to the Lions while he was banished by then coach Robbie Deans and then struggled with him at the start of The Rugby Championship before clicking into gear and offering renewed hope.

"I feel this tour has put us ahead of where we thought we would be," said Cooper, who praised the squad's unity since six players were stood down for a late night in Dublin.

"We've made a lot of things [happen] that we didn't think were possible as a team, in terms of culture. Everyone's pulled together tight and we've come out the other side a bigger and better team. I know that those things will put us in a position to be the best in the world."

Quade Cooper produced a dynamic performance for the Wallabies against Wales in Cardiff © Getty Images
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