Quade braces for big battle with O'Connor
March 7, 2013
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They're renowned for their flair and dazzling skills but Quade Cooper is also bracing for a battle of strength against James O'Connor in their playmaking duel on Friday night.
In his 50th Super Rugby match, O'Connor will both captain the Melbourne Rebels and guide them around AAMI Park in a mouth-watering match-up against Queensland five-eighth Cooper.
As disappointed as Cooper is for the other member of the Wallabies's "three amigos", the injured Kurtley Beale (broken hand), he's on guard for the deceptive power of O'Connor at No.10.
The 22-year-old has consistently surprised defenders in the early rounds of the competition from fullback and highlighted his extra strength with four tackle busts in the 31-26 loss to NSW.
After missing the entire Test season last year with hamstring problems, O'Connor has bulked up and now tips the scales at 90kg, almost 10kg more than when he made his Wallabies debut in 2009.
"He's grown up a lot and he's a lot bigger," Cooper told AAP. "He's not like a little 18-year-old anymore. "He's actually now a very powerful player and is a lot bigger than what people's memories of him are when he burst onto the scene. He's worked hard at his strength and his power and it's come right into his game with how many tackles he breaks and his defence."
Defence has also been a much improved feature of Cooper's game since he returned from his knee reconstruction last year. The Queensland playmaker, who defended at fullback or wing in 2011, is back tackling strongly in the front-line for the Reds, who held the Hurricanes tryless on the weekend.
Quade Cooper has thrown a few back-handed complements the way of James O'Connor ahead of their clash. © PA Photos
"I've worked really hard at it and I've spent a lot of time in the gym to be strong when I come into contact and it's started to work in my favour," Cooper added.
It will certainly be a key factor when Wallabies coach Robbie Deans weighs up the contenders for the Australian No.10 jersey against the British and Irish Lions.
Ironically, it's the position Cooper, O'Connor and Beale all held in their most recent Test outings. When all three were last fit - at the 2011 World Cup - Cooper was five-eighth, O'Connor on the right wing and Beale fullback.
Cooper feels they can reunite in the Australian backline against the Lions if their form, and the Wallabies's game style, warrants it.
"I don't feel we're gunning for the same spot," Cooper said.
Queensland will name their team on Thursday with halfback Ben Lucas set to be cleared of a shoulder injury.
"We call him Lazarus around here," Cooper said. "Benny always walks off the field in a world of hurt. He throws himself around like he's a 120kg juggernaut but he's 80kg wringing wet."