Commonwealth Games: Gareth Cooper: Rugby Union: Teenager on a big-name hunt

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The Independent Online
HE MAY only stand 5ft 7in tall, and weigh-in at 12st soaking wet, but Gareth Cooper is treading the same path that has turned many of his home-town colleagues into giants of rugby in Wales.

The teenager will line-up alongside his more famous home-town products, Scott Gibbs and Gareth Thomas, in the Welsh seven-a-side squad in Kuala Lumpur. Each of the famous pair graduated into the senior game via the junior system at Pencoed rugby club, on the outskirts of Bridgend. Gibbs made his full Wales debut by the time he was 20 and has gone on to become a huge success. Thomas announced his arrival in a senior Welsh jersey with a hat-trick of tries in the 1995 World Cup and has since become his nation's top strike force.

So what of Cooper? Unknown perhaps today, he is one of the men marked for a big future by club and country. "I first played for Pencoed in the Under-9s and I can remember watching both Scott and Gareth playing for the youth team when I was in the Under-13s," Cooper said. "To find myself lining-up alongside them in a Welsh squad is fantastic. They were like gods to the juniors at Pencoed and they were a source of inspiration to me."

Capped by the Welsh Schools Under-18 team two seasons ago, he played for the Wales Youth Under-19 side last winter and also the Welsh Universities. In Kuala Lumpur he will take another significant step as he brushes shoulders with Gibbs, Thomas and Robert Howley in his own squad before getting to grips with opponents like Australia's David Campese and New Zealand's Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and Taine Randell.

Howley is the man who Cooper will ultimately have to dislodge from the Welsh No 9 jersey if he is to make the grade. He followed in his footsteps into the Bridgend Schools and Welsh Schools sides, but is the first to recognise the next step will be the hardest. "Rob is a fantastic player. He used to come down and help out at some of the Wales Youth training sessions," Cooper said. "He was always very good and encouraged me a great deal. He would pass on useful tips and I'm glad that I've met him prior to joining him in the squad.

"I have had some experience of playing for Wales at seven-a-side. I was in the development teams at the Punte del Este tournament in Uruguay and in Jerusalem. I knew I was in with a chance of making the squad for the Games but I only made it when Paul John dropped out. Now it is up to me to make the most of a great opportunity."

This season is scheduled to be Cooper's first in the senior game, although he spent the whole of last winter playing for his university side, UWIC, in the Welsh First Division. On top of that he helped UWIC reach the semi- final of the BUSA Cup and the final of the inaugural European Students Cup. After only two terms, however, Cooper has decided to become a full- time rugby professional. Cardiff were interested, but Bath won the day.

"For my rugby to develop I felt I needed a bigger challenge," Cooper said. "Cardiff talked about making me an offer, but in the end Bath came up with the best package. They want me to play for their Under-21 team and I hope to get some games for the first XV.

"It has been intimidating training alongside players like Jeremy Guscott, Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville, but the Welsh contingent, Richard Webster and Ieuan Evans, are taking care of me. Bath is a big club and I just thought moving there would be best for my development as a player. But I don't want to fall out of the reckoning with Wales and that is why the Commonwealth Games is very, very important to me."

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