Rugby Union: All Blacks get a kick out of Cooper: New Zealand's new goalkicker is a chip off the Grant Fox block. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
HOW do you replace the greatest points-machine in the history of rugby? If you are the All Blacks, with two men - which is a fair reflection of what Grant Fox has meant to them down the years. Now if Matthew Cooper can kick like Foxy, it would be the most seamless transition in the history of the game.

The astounding thing is that, so far anyway, he is doing so. While Stephen Bachop is impressing as Fox's prospective outside-half successor, Cooper is doing the other side of the business by kicking the goals as prolifically as if he were the great man himself. Thirty-four points from two and a bit games would have satisfied even Fox, though his 645 Test points will take a bit of catching.

If six successful kicks from eight against London was an impressive start, what followed was precisely Fox-like not simply for its unfailing accuracy but for its absolute imperviousness to pressure. The two late penalties Cooper landed after replacing Lee Stensness against the Midlands won New Zealand the match. So did his five out of five against the South- West. At Gateshead on Sunday it will be England A's turn to take their punishment.

How does he do it? With a little help from the wily Fox, actually. 'I had a couple of problems back in the New Zealand season and had a chat with him,' Cooper said. 'If there is one person to speak to about goal- kicking, it's Foxy. He looked at what I was doing and pointed out a couple of things about my technique. The problem was with how I was planting my non-kicking foot, which was making me hook the ball.

'There are so many similarities to a golf swing but I wouldn't say my golf is very good. Your kicking foot is a bit like a three-iron. It's a mental thing as well: you have to be absolutely confident and see the ball going between the posts before you kick it. If you have negative thoughts, you won't kick well.'

Cooper could be excused if he did harbour negative thoughts after a bizarre 18 months during which he lurched between the emotional peaks and troughs. First he was chosen for New Zealand, then he played like a dream, then he was dropped. Recuperation came with his province, the mighty Waikato. National champions in 1992, in September they released Auckland's eight-year hold on the Ranfurly Shield. Cooper, full-back in Waikato's humbling of the Lions in June, ended up at outside centre and scored 250 points.

All of which was a consolation he needed. Having made the most sensational debut in the history of international rugby, he immediately lost his place and, before and after, has struggled because of being labelled a utility player. Jack-of-all-trades and all that . . .it is both a blessing and a curse.

As Kevin Greene, his coach back home in Hamilton, put it: 'You always get into the squad and make the tours, but you don't get the Test matches.' Indeed Cooper has already played at full-back against London, was inside-centre against the South- West and will be again against England A. But the difference this time is that his form - not only as kicker but also as an outstanding player - is so good that, barring accidents, he is bound to be found a place against Scotland on 20 November and England a week later.

'If I had to choose a position it would be full-back; that's where I enjoy it most,' he said. 'It's so open and there are so many attacking options there. On the other hand, playing in the centres for Waikato was pretty enjoyable, too, and, to be perfectly honest, I'm happy just to be on the field. I feel confident wherever I'm playing.'

Cooper, 27, may be unfamiliar to British audiences but he goes back a surprisingly long way. As a 21-year- old, he made the All Blacks' post- World Cup tour of 1987 to Japan. By his own admission, he did not excel. 'I feel now as though in all honesty I may have been a little bit young,' he said, and it was not until last year that the call finally came. Cooper's success with Waikato after leaving his native Hawke's Bay was such that he was capped in the second Test against the Irish in Wellington.

It was a bitter-sweet moment, since the man he displaced as full-back was none other than elder brother Greg, one of those who carried the can for Ireland's near miss in Dunedin. Cooper junior proceeded to amass 23 points in the All Blacks' 59-6 victory, a handsome record for a Test debutant. He now has five caps, but every one of the subsequent four has been as a replacement and the fact is that he lost his place almost as soon as he had won it.

Fox, omitted against Ireland, returned on the tour of Australia and South Africa, John Timu was preferred at full-back, and Cooper slipped into the ranks of the midweekers. But did he despair? Of course not. 'Disappointed as I was, it was wonderful being part of the tour of Australia and South Africa,' Cooper said. 'I may have lost a bit of confidence, but the key is not to dwell on it.

'It was one way of learning not to take anything for granted. In the past I've tended to look too far ahead but right now my thoughts are focused entirely on the Gateshead match. Wherever I play, I'm striving to put a case forward for my selection and it would be marvellous to be chosen after flittering in and out since my debut.'

If anyone deserves the chance, it is Cooper. 'He was getting a little frustrated and maybe that was affecting him,' Kevin Greene said. 'But I know he is a very, very good footballer whether he is at full-back or in midfield and from watching him on TV both playing and being interviewed I can see how he is growing in confidence on the tour. He could have no more just reward than a Test spot - and that goes for whatever position they pick him.'

(Photograph omitted)

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